Happy Camper: Life is Better in the Woods

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Photo by Laura Pluth on Unsplash

Our family never really took weekend camping trips when we were kids—not in the traditional sense.

My parents were back-to-the-landers in their youth and spent several years living in a log cabin they’d built themselves in B.C.’s wintry Cariboo. When my sister and I were still small, Dad bought an empty lot atop a bluff on one of the southern Gulf Islands with the vision of recreating an off-grid summer cabin.

I don’t recall how many years Dad spent building the cabin with the help of his “Cariboo days” friends, the logs themselves having to be delivered to the island by helicopter. I can’t even remember our first trip specifically, only that the time eventually arrived when it was fit for human habitation, and my childhood summers became marked by those seemingly endless stretches of weeks we spent exploring the island.

In the early days, we were ferried over by one of the year-round residents operating a water taxi service, and, in later years, towed our boat from home, Mom and Dad strained by the precarious effort of guiding the trailer down the boat ramp before launching off across the channel. Every one of our belongings had to be secured in Rubbermaid totes to be thrown from the boat to the beach during the haphazard process of unloading, then stacked at the back of the quad and hauled uphill to the cabin in a series of trips.

Despite the hardship of our arrival— the laboured steps of getting there, and then the discovery that mice had made themselves cozy during the winter and — those weeks at the cabin hold some of my most precious childhood memories.

In many ways, it was much like camping. Our days were spent building forts from fir boughs, gathering pointy hermits crabs on the beach or lazily working our way through the stack of novels we’d stuffed in our bags (and, when those ran out, the mildewed paperbacks picked from the island’s take-a-book, leave-a-book bin). We scrubbed ourselves clean beneath the solar shower bag, spent our evenings round the fire burning marshmallows and brushed our teeth by the orange cast of the kerosene lanterns. It had all the trappings of camping, with the benefits of sleeping indoors and waiting out the occasional rain shower with the luxury of a colouring book.

Which isn’t to say I wasn’t accustomed to camping in the more basic sense. For one, my childhood best friend’s parents were devoted campers who often brought me along for a weekend or two of biking the trails, swimming ’til our toes wrinkled and crisping hot dogs by the fire. (My friend alleged to hate camping and its absence of MuchMusic, so probably my invitation was as much an effort to buffer her complaints as it was to keep her distracted.)

And then there was Girl Guide camp, which was filthy and damp, and which I loved. We crafted tuna can stoves and newspaper sit-upons and, at night, we were corralled to covered picnic tables and ladled cups of hot Jello (the fact of drinking hot Jello remains strange to me, the only explanation that someone had forgotten the cocoa and was doing the best they could).

Girl guide camp was so primitive, in fact, that one year I inadvertently contracted a contagious strain of flesh-eating staph, discovered a short time after we’d arrived for our several-week long stay at the cabin and Mom noticed that every one of my sister and my’s mosquito bites rapidly mutated into a festering wound.

And then, of course, there were a couple debaucherous high school grad camp outs, much less about camping than the consumption of fruit-flavoured coolers.

So, when my now-husband and I planned our first camping trip together a decade and a half ago, we had a pretty solid idea of how it should look (and not look, thanks to Vex raspberry lemonade and flesh-eating bacteria).

Being that we didn’t actually own any proper camping supplies, R. rummaged what he could from his dad’s basement, while the rest we proudly bought new from the outdoor store.

We drove the one and a half hours to a nearby provincial park and spent two full days fumbling our meals on a single-burner stove, playing countless hands of Crazy 8s and huddling close to the fire at night, pondering all things big and small. We were officially sold.

There were many more camping trips over the years, until we’d fine-tuned a summertime ritual of planning meals and organizing supplies and journeying near and far for the rare and precious experience of a weekend unplugged. We even camped our way down the Oregon coast in 2012, our compact sedan loaded to the roof, living almost two full weeks alongside the ocean amid an unfamiliarity of sights and sounds.

It was, unsurprisingly, around the same time that we gradually began developing camper van envy. As we strung tarps, grappled with tent poles and awkwardly pumped the air mattress full, we couldn’t help notice the drastically fewer steps enjoyed by our camper van neighbours.

We began fantasizing about our camper van life — the freedom of never having to “pack for camping”, of not sleeping on the ground, of taking off for an adventure at any time.

All our imaginings remained a fantasy until R. one day learned his coworker was one of the camper van elite. After many discussions about what it was like, exactly, to own an 80s-era VW Westfalia, his coworker invited us out one afternoon to give it a spin.

That may have been the turning point for us, the shifting of our dreams into reality. It was inevitable, after such a long period of fixation, that we’d fall in love. It took that one-hour drive to cement the thought in our minds: we were buying a camper van.

The thought, however, was much more straightforward than the reality, which entailed the disappointing recurrence of going to see a van, only to discover the floor was rusted out or the transmission in need of repair. We met a strange assortment of characters those months of hunting, every visit filled with stories of nostalgia and adventure.

It wasn’t until late summer 2013 when we finally found the right one. We acted fast, securing our decision with a deposit and spending a night in a hotel so we could complete the transaction the following morning. We hardly slept from the excitement, the drive home the next afternoon downright surreal.

Owning a camper van was nothing short of what we expected. We spent two full summers basking in the glory of it. We spent every single weekend camping, relishing every moment of its being made easier by not having to spend the greater part of the preceding week preparing.

We took the van to two separate music festivals and luxuriated in the privacy and comfort of the experience (namely, not having to listen to our neighbours engaged in coke-fueled intercourse or waking in the morning to the sounds of retching vomit).

We even took a road trip to B.C.’s Kootenays, a 10-hour journey along hot and winding mountain passes. Had I known then what I know now — that VW Westfalias are acutely finicky machines liable to break down at the most inopportune moments — I certainly would’ve never fathomed such a trip.

Having a Westfalia changed our lives as campers, but it came with a price.

We believed at the time we’d done our due diligence and had a thorough understanding of what to expect when it came to owning a camper van. In hindsight, it’s likely our preoccupation with all the novel factors outshined our sense of reason, so that we were ill-prepared for the unavoidable downfalls.

The most critical aspect we overlooked is that 80s-era Westfalias (and Westfalias in general) are notoriously high-maintenance vehicles requiring at least a general understanding of mechanical behaviour (of which we had none).

We had bought a van in impeccable shape, but whose engine was, unfortunately, on borrowed time. And we knew this, to an extent, and resolved our concerns with plans to eventually replace the aging motor with a brand new conversion.

This, of course, never happened because any money we may have potentially saved for the conversion was constantly being funnelled into simply keeping her running. Because we idiotically overlooked another critical factor when buying a camper van: it should never be one’s singular mode of transportation.

This is for the obvious reason of not tacking unnecessary miles on to an already worn-out motor, but also, because the likelihood of the van breaking down (or, say, suddenly leaking an alarming trail of gasoline) is very, very high. Like, guaranteed-level high.

It became apparent very quickly we couldn’t keep hemorrhaging money into a van we would never afford to convert, and grudgingly accepted the fact we would have to sell.

Our beloved van was towed away nearly three years after we bought it by a mechanic specializing in Westfalias — a person with the resources to give her the life she deserved.

We, meanwhile, had to readjust from having been one of the short-lived elite to sleeping once more on the ground.

By now we were seasoned campers, so had certain requisites when it came to maximizing our comfort and ease. Not only did we invest in a good quality tent, we ensured it was simple to assemble and tall enough to stand in.

It took a season or so to get used to our new set-up, but it didn’t slow down the frequency of our trips. Last summer we toured northern California by car, visiting the redwoods, exploring Yosemite and even spending a night in Napa.

Even now, as I write this, my hair is tinged with the faint scent of smoke after a weekend camping at a local site with friends.

Thinking back to the amount of effort invested by my parents for those weeks at the cabin, the money we spent maintaining a vehicle that habitually betrayed us and even the work I put into this past weekend’s preparations (in spite of trying to keep it “low-key”), it’s funny to consider what we’re willing to endure in exchange for the trade-off.

There’s nothing I really love about cooking with propane or sleeping on an airbed or the making the dreaded late-night journey to the outhouse.

But the nights tucked close to my husband, watching flames dance in the dark; naps on the beach, half-drunk on honey wine; communal cooking and morning sun, heartfelt conversations and rounds of Taboo —it’s the closeness of nature and the slowing of time. The distraction-less space of being totally present.

Community and connection, meaning and stillness — a much-needed relief from our daily routines.

I’m never more exhausted returning home from a weekend of camping.

And never more content.

Written by

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

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