Camping. People extol its virtues and wax poetic about how relaxing, how rejuvenating it is. I don’t enjoy it. I tried it a few times when I was younger. Not for me. If camping in a trailer, it’s doll-sized everything: doll-sized bathroom, doll-sized stove, doll-sized sink. I am, however, a full-sized person. Or there’s “rustic” camping, involving sleeping in a tent. I’m beyond an age where crawling into a fabric lean-to in order to sleep on the ground appeals to me. And digging a pit toilet. Um – no. There are also camping in-betweens, like a yurt or walled tent. Been there, done that. Still: no.
I’ve not been shy about expressing my aversion to camping. But I want you to know -- I am a team player. I can keep a stiff upper lip and all that. And my dear Wally has fond memories of camping in his youth. So, I lovingly admired his ingenuity when he bought an old van and fitted it with clever transformers: a wall flipped down to make a bed. A table slid out from a platform where bins of cookware and a stove were stored. Folding chairs were tucked into a corner. He was so proud. He planned a road trip for us in this miracle camping van. I said, “Okay.”
So on a warm mid-summer day, we headed west from Michigan toward our final destination of Yellowstone National Park. Sitting up high in the van’s cushy captain seats afforded us optimal views over the tops of lowly sedans and guardrails. How about that? Riding in the van and sightseeing was more enjoyable than I had anticipated. As evening approached on the first day, we looked for a campground. Being a planner by nature, I had been inclined to scope out our options ahead of time, but this was Wally’s trip; I was trying to embrace his more laissez-faire approach. After darkness had fallen, we finally saw a sign for a campground. We pulled into the rutted driveway and pointed the headlights in the direction of a signboard with a rickety wooden box attached. The faded instructions, posted on yellowed, wrinkled paper told us to pick a spot and put our $15 in the box. That seemed like low rent. After consulting the diagram and choosing a non-electric lot near the bathhouse, we drove in the dark and finally found our numbered sign. We bumpity-bumped over protruding tree roots before Wally safely put the van into park. I was learning so much! Money box, non-electric lot, numbered sign post – but my education was only beginning. After the long ride, a visit to the bathhouse was imperative. A dim yellow bulb signaled the entrance where the muddy cement floor gave rise to equally wet concrete block walls that appeared to be a mosquito breeding area. Swarms lit on my head, my arms, my backside. I didn’t need the mosquitoes to hurry me along; the odor was overpowering. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to take the time to flush. No flusher on these commodes. I ran back to the van and jumped in. Of course, mosquitos followed me. The whining of the pests, the itching, and the hot humidity of the airless van made sleeping out of the question. Once a glimpse of light filtered the sky, we were up and on our way. Tired and hungry, Wally promised breakfast out. At home, I may have graded the restaurant average, but on that morning, it was two-thumbs-up-excellent.
The next few nights were spent at hotels where we gratefully took long showers and watched TV in bed with the air-conditioner blowing and coffee brewing. When we got to the cool shadow of the Grand Tetons, we saw a campground and I was persuaded to give the van another chance. Our spot showcased the mountain vista. Watching the sun set behind the peaks would have been inspiring and maybe even relaxing, except for the ominous signs posted everywhere. Beware of Bears signs warned us that neglecting to secure even a bottle of shampoo would bring bears running. The bathhouse had clean tiles and flushing toilets, which was a relief, but the massive latches on the doors meant to foil the wily bears were a challenge. With little regard for the bears, Wally started a campfire and roasted some hotdogs and beans. We ate like cowboys amid sagebrush and fear. Thankful that we didn’t attract any furry visitors, we quickly disposed of our trash after deciphering the baffling dumpster lids. We survived our second camping night.
At Yellowstone, we saw the eruption of Old Faithful and the mysterious boiling mud pots. A bison ran alongside the van for a bit, dove into the dust, rolled over and stood again with astonishing speed for such a bulky animal. Completely worth the trip.
When we left Yellowstone, we passed through a good-sized town where I looked at the gas gauge and saw that we had less than half a tank. My dad indoctrinated me in the virtues of a full tank, so I mentioned that we might want to fill up. Wally said we had plenty of gas; we’d stop later. I bit my tongue and we headed into the desert. Mile after mile, the gas gauge continued to drop as we passed exit after exit with No Services signs posted. The low fuel light glowed and my anxiety grew. I checked my cell phone: also No Service. There were few cars on the road. You know where my thoughts were going, right? Why didn’t we fill up when I said to, and what on earth would we do if we ran out of gas out here in this god-forsaken wasteland? Finally, an exit with a gas station appeared and the van coasted in on fumes. After filling the tank, we went inside to pay. Just as we were ready to leave, a man and woman hustled in and started for the rear of the station. The cashier called, “Restroom is out of order.” The panic in their eyes made mine water. My gas anxiety met their toilet anxiety.
On our last night before reaching home, Wally persuaded me to give camping one last go. After claiming our camping spot, we climbed an embankment adjacent to the campground to eat dinner at a restaurant with a moose statue out front. I took that as a good sign; I love moose. After hoisting our full bellies back over the hill to the van, we fell into bed and slept until I woke up at about 2 a.m., needing to go to the bathhouse. Since it was pitch dark outside and a bit of a walk, Wally agreed to go, too. It was a nice bathhouse, clean, and bug- and odor-free. Maybe, I thought, if we found a nice campground like this one, I could camp in the van more. That notion quickly disappeared when, returning to the van, we realized that we were locked out. We peered in the window to see the metal of the keys in the ignition, glinting in the moonlight. Wally paced and thought out loud about how he might remedy the situation. I sat on the picnic table and swatted mosquitoes. Minutes dragged by. Finally, I heard Wally’s voice from the other side of the van. He had woken some folks in a nearby trailer and they gave him a wire coat hanger. Who even has wire coat hangers anymore? Wally straightened the wire and began to thread it through the window frame. After many misses, he asked me to hold his cell phone like a flashlight. “What??? You had your phone all this time? I’m calling 911!”
“No,” he said. “That’s not what 911 is for.”
“This is exactly what 911 is for. Stranded in the middle of the night. An emergency.”
“Just hold it here.” He trained the light on the lock button. I held the phone and sure enough – he popped the lock. Thank goodness he bought an old van with protruding door lock buttons. And now I know he is not only handy in retrofitting an old van into a camping vehicle, he’s also proficient in breaking-and-entering.
The van continues to take us on road trips. We catch great views along the way from our high vantage point. We take turns napping on the bed in the back sometimes. We have plenty of room for luggage and purchases where the camping gear was once stowed. Wally also uses the van to haul building supplies for his job. We live in complete harmony because, after what we now fondly call our Yellowstone Adventure, Wally doesn’t like camping, either.