When we upgraded from our worn out, four-person tent to a like-new, 1995 Jayco pop-up three years ago, you would have thought we reincarnated ourselves into characters straight out of the “Jeffersons,” the iconic ‘70s sit-com spinoff from “All in the Family,” by Hollywood legend, Norman Lear. Our family acted like giddy fools who, likewise, finally struck it rich; singing the theme song at the top of our lungs in the driveway:
“Well we’re movin on up, to the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Movin on up
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”
Indeed, considering our humble camping beginnings. The premier family camping adventure actually was in the summer of 1995 when Sydney and MacKenzie were 5 and 2 respectively. The Finger Lakes region of New York, the first of four stops on a 10-day “trial” to Canada and back. We put our foot down: our tent would only be staked in a State or Provincial Park, the Park had to be near a body of water, and we would only prepare really, really good food. (None of that hot dogs and beans stuff.)
Ever gone tent camping with two little kids? MacKenzie was barely potty trained (never wore a disposable diaper in her life) and was newly weaned from the breast. She claimed a space in my sleeping bag right away. Turned out Sydney was petrified at night by the “monster sounds” just beyond the flimsy fabric of the tent, i.e. crickets, cicadas, bull frogs, whatever was “out there” and managed to squeeze in with Gordon. (“Like sleeping with a jack rabbit.”) Perhaps worse, Sydney was fascinated with fire. Wanted to burn every stick or piece of paper in sight. We didn’t let her out of ours.
Thankfully, that initial stop at Cayuga Lake State Park for three nights was rainless, near the bathroom/shower house, and a stone’s throw from an outdoor water spigot.
In other words, damn near perfect.
Just like my organic buckwheat pancakes in the morning with strawberries and nitrate-free bacon sizzling on the griddle on our brand new Coleman on the picnic table. Or tuna fish salad with capers and olives and roasted red peppers on romaine leaves for lunch. Or homemade meatballs for dinner that I made and froze before the trip with my favorite tomato sauce, Dell’Amore — that I still love to this day — made by an old friend and client from my former neighborhood in Burlington, Vermont. On fresh linguine with hand-grated Parm. Dessert? Let’s just say that there are some things in life that ain’t broke and don’t need fixin’: S’mores. (In my more mature camping years, I experimented with all kinds of chocolate and traded graham crackers for ginger snaps for a snappy good taste.)
Three sunny, happy days. Swimming – if you can call it that — in the crystal clear lake, long walks – mostly piggy back – on the nature trails, naps whenever we felt like it, lots of Candyland and Dominos playing after dinner until sunset then storytelling around the campfire. After the fire was extinguished we would lie on our backs on a spread-out sleeping bag and gawk at the stars. Sigh.
Gordon, the wise sage of the clan – he was 49 when Sydney was born – would wax poetic in “kid speak” about how far away “Twinkle” was and, if they could believe it, “a hundred, hundred, hundred, hundred times older than daddy.” They couldn’t.
The next morning, backs aching from sleeping on the hard ground — and with jack rabbits — but otherwise filled with enthusiasm and accomplishment, we “broke” camp, packed the ’90 Chrysler van to the gills – including two happy kids in two car seats – and headed to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and our first Provincial Park.
It may have been my fourth visit to the Falls but that “natural wonder” gets me every time. Especially from the Canadian perspective. At the risk of offending the Motherland, the U.S. side is more like a “side show” off the main strip in Vegas or Atlantic City i.e. garish, commercialized, dirty, rundown, ‘70s-ish architecture. Not the right “framing” for the masterpiece Mother Nature began creating over 500 million years ago.
The folks in Niagara Falls, Canada, on the other hand, know how to “window dress” the main attraction so as to enhance the experience, not detract from it. While there is plenty of “crass” a few blocks from the epicenter, the handsome visitor center and walkways are surrounded by lush, manicured gardens whose beauty and opulence – “opulence” is key – matches the spectacle and majesty of the Falls, the majority of which are physically on the U.S. side so you have sweeping views of North America’s biggest water fall.
Of course, in those days we didn’t need passports but it would have been worth getting them just to hear Sydney and MacKenzie screaming with joy as the cold mist blasted them in the face on a hot day and the cacophony from the roiling mega tons of hydro power roared in their ears. A high watermark in our camping legacy, and then? The anticlimax.
Just as we headed to Selkirk Provincial Park on Lake Erie, some 50 miles west of Niagara, the black storm clouds came rolling in. Big time. With big wind. And weather was the least of our worries. I had heard – over and over and over again from my Canadian husband – about the great expanse of wilderness above the 49th parallel.
Turns out, it was wilder than I bargained for. We’re talking “MIDDLE OF NO WHERE, COYOTE WILDERNESS.” No attendees at the 200-acre park. No other campers at the park. No showers at the park. No flush toilets at the park, only “pit” toilets in a shelter covered with dead bugs. And one remote water spigot with H2O that smelled like S (sulphur). (Note: that first camping trip was over 20 years ago and Selkirk Provincial Park has since been dramatically updated with many modern amenities.)
Lake Erie, despite all appearances otherwise and a fabulous sunrise and sunset our final day, was as dead as a door knob even though herculean efforts to clean her up had been ongoing for something like 20 years. Another words, our “puppies” wouldn’t be doggie paddling in that puddle no matter how hard they begged.
We stuck it out and our perseverance was rewarded. We all pitched in, learned a lot about teamwork, and each other. Sydney had the mind of a mechanical engineer; always fixing things. MacKenzie was the comic entertainer, and bossier than me. I taught them how to pee squatting down without hitting their legs, which had them laughing so hard they peed all over mine. Gordon tried to teach them basic knot tying to attach a clothes line between trees. It was so short that the towels dragged by several feet. More laughter.
All of us helped with meals. The girls, setting and cleaning off the table; breaking the eggs for pancake batter; shucking corn. Part of the “really, really good food” creed was buying fresh produce from farm stands along the roads and byways. Corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peaches, green beans, green peppers. We ate a lot of corn on the cob and BLTs with garlic mayo and mozzarella slices. Peaches browned on the griddle with granola and maple syrup sprinkled on top. Burgers with caramelized onions and green peppers. I sautéed green beans in the frying pan with olive oil, onions, herbs, and bacon. Gordon always washed and dried the dishes. We (almost) never went hungry and banished (most) junk food. The camping life wasn’t bad.
Day five and the rain came down in buckets. A cold, steady rain. We didn’t know enough to get a “cook shelter” when we bought the tent so lighting the gas stove for hot chocolate or a frittata wasn’t happening. We resigned to sleep late and “play house” all day. Then I had an epiphany, “TODAY IS INTERNATIONAL CERERAL EATING DAY,” I declared, “WHEN FAMILIES AROUND THE WORLD EAT CERERAL FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH, AND DINNER!”
“Wheely, mamma?” Sydney asked in her excited, 5-year old lisp, eyes wider than recycled paper bowls, “Is it wheely?”
MacK yells, “EERIEOS! EERIEOS!” (Translation: “Cheerios!”, generic term for Cascadian Farms, Honey Nut O’s.)
Gordon’s laugh devolves into a faux baby’s plaintive wail, “Mommy, I wanna go home!”
So much for really, really good food.
_ _ _ _
At the crack of dawn, day six, the clan is awakened by a pulsating vibration that I first imagine to be some kind of military aircraft flying overhead. We stumble out of our sleeping bags and unzip the mesh windows for a peek outside. The burnished sky, a pale, glowing orange in the east, is flecked with undulating waves of black. Then the noise becomes deafening, the black cloud comes ever closer and swoops right over the tent.
“They’re birds!” Gordon yells, “Thousands and thousands of birds, you guys!”
“Can we go see where they’re going?” I ask, heart racing.
Gordon pauses and looks at our daughters. They are excited but confused. “I guess. If Sydney and MacKenzie want to.”
Sydney shakes her head, “yes,” but says, “Deh won’t hurt me, will deh?”
“No, honey, they’re probably eating breakfast over that hill. Let’s check it out.”
We put on tennis shoes and windbreakers and trudged, hand in hand, to the crest of the hill. The sight and sound made us gasp. A virtual sea of goldfinches flittering everywhere, all singing at once and eating the seed heads of the brilliant purple thistle, waist high and as far as the eye could see, the horizon a fireball of orange sunrise.
That morning in Ontario we were accidental tourists in Nature’s private sanctuary. Gordon and I decided right then and there that this was what camping with our children was all about. The camping trip of 1995 would be one of many, many extraordinary adventures we would enjoy on this great continent over the next 17 years in our four-person tent, staked in State and Provincial Parks, near a body of water, and ever-famous for really, really good food.
Next time: our recent pop-up culinary exploit on the Cape.
About The Barking Tomato:Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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