Monday, October 15, 2012

The Camping Trip

It was unfortunate that right before embarking on the only camping trip of my entire life, I had been reading The Scramble for Africa:  White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham.  I told myself that if David Livingston could explore vast areas of Africa before nylon was ever invented,  I did not need to purchase any special gear for a weekend at a campground in eastern Pennsylvania.  We had a tent, a teapot, a box of granola bars.  Surely nothing else would be required.

I did not grow up in a camping family, and I sometimes felt a little wistful when other kids talked about their camping trips.  My family's idea of roughing it was when my father pre-mixed martinis in jam jars for picnics at Fort Niagara.

It was a meet-up of friends from all up and down the east coast.  Jon was working so I went alone with the four kids.  This was about eight years ago when they were 12,11, 8, and 5.  It was immediately apparent that our tent was somewhat lacking, compared to those of my friends.  They had ground tarps, air mattresses, camping stoves and clever collapsing dishes.

Our tent smelled horrible.  It had been stored in various basements, unused, for approximately thirteen years.  I laid out our sleeping bags and hoped that by bedtime the smell would have dissipated.  It hadn't, although by bedtime we had other worries, such as the fact that it was pouring rain and Grace had tripped on a tent peg and gashed her head on a rock.  We were soaked and freezing and our tent was uninhabitable, although it smelled so bad I was almost relieved to have an excuse to sleep in the car.

There were hot showers and flush toilets just down the road,  so the five of us piled into my old Volvo wagon and drove 1/4 mile down the hill to the showers, which turned out to be coin-operated.  I had never in all my life heard of coin operated showers, and of course I didn't have enough coins for five showers.  We consoled ourselves by changing into dry clothes and taking advantage of the flush toilets. Back at the campground, Grace managed to slam the car door on Ian's hand before we all settled in to sleep upright for the night.

The next morning was sunny and after a hot cup of tea, my friends persuaded me to stay another night.  And we did have fun that day, and one friend suggested laundering the tent at the camp laundromat, which lessened the smell but did not entirely eliminate it.  Our sleeping bags were soaked, but I dried them on a clothesline.

Things were definitely looking up, until dinnertime, when one of my kids complained of a stomach ache and crawled into the tent early, looking distinctly pale and clammy.  Later, I had just dropped off to sleep when the sick child announced a need to throw up.  I struggled helplessly with the two sets of zippers which sealed our tent's entrance while said child was copiously sick all over the tent floor and his sleeping bag.  He dragged his body forward and lay with his head just over the tent threshold, retching, while I alternated between sobbing and begging him not to throw up in my shoes.

It was long past midnight, my child was covered in puke, had no clean clothes and the running water was 1/4 mile away.  The other children slept as a foul lake of vomit slowly seeped into their bedding.  I stumbled through the dark to the car and groped in the roof rack and found our last remaining item of clean clothing:  a pair of too-small boxer shorts.  These, combined with a towel, were what my son had to wear for the rest of the night.

Sleep was impossible now and I stalked the campsite with a lantern, snatching our clothes and bathing suits off the clotheslines and tossing them willy-nilly into the roof rack, determined to leave immediately until I remembered that my car was nearly out of gas.  I herded the other children to the car for another night in the Volvo.  About 4:00am, Seamus said he felt sick and I got him out of the car just in time to throw up on the ground between my feet.

We were ready to leave as the rest of the camp was just beginning to stir.  For the road, the sick child wore his bathing suit, which was at least dry, and not underwear.  On the way out, I backed the car smartly into a tree and stove the bumper in.  The tent was ruined and I threw it away as we left the campground, taking some small satisfaction imagining a future conversation in which Jon would ask, "Hey, where's my tent?"  and I would say, "In a dumpster in eastern Pennsylvania."  One of the other kids now announced that she felt sick and spent the four hour drive throwing up into a succession of plastic grocery bags.  The only one of us who didn't get sick was the one child who hadn't eaten a hot dog for lunch the day before.

What is the point of this story?  Maybe it is a lesson that it is not a good idea to read books about explorers before going camping.  We would at least have had a ground tarp otherwise, and Jon, to give him credit, had advised me to get one and I didn't listen to him, all because of David Farking Livingston.  It's also a cautionary tale about how one shouldn't trust hot dogs that have been stored in a cooler for 24 hours.  And finally, it is an illustration of how children can be counted on to choose the most inconvenient moment possible to develop a vomiting sickness.


  1. What a nightmare!!! Just the idea of camping is bad enough; combined with lots of barf and the thought makes me queasy enough to never leave the house.

    If you feel like boating across a long ocean expanse, read "8 Men and a Duck" by Nick Thorpe and I guarantee you'll stay on dry land.

  2. You know, I always prided myself on being the queen of vomit blogging, but now I respectfully pass that crown on to you. You've earned it.

  3. Quietly removes camping from his bucket list ...

  4. Holy hell, what a freaking nightmare.

    And of course, this does nothing to further my husband's campaign for us to take a family camping trip.

  5. I'm amazed you ever stepped outside into nature again after such a hellish weekend.
    And a Pennsylvania dumpster was too good a fate for said tent.

  6. So many bad camping trips, so little time to sit here and recount them.....
    Most of mine involve rain though, not puke. So you win for the worst camping trip ever.

    Having grown up in Eastern PA, I'm pretty sure I can say you improved the place by leaving the tent in the dumpster.

  7. I had to camp multiple times for fieldwork over the years, and never was it a "fun" experience. I did end up in wild places I wouldn't have otherwise, and the days were mighty interesting, but the nights were never a good night's sleep. And that's without any vomiting :-)

    I have never understood why someone would choose camping as a "vacation". I probably shouldn't have encouraged, Jen, really.

  8. Thank you thank you! My last camping trip was so terribly awful (as has been every single one, come to think of it) that I'm still having camping nightmares. Thanks to you, I now know that it can be so, so much worse. As always, you are awesome for surviving!

  9. no not a camper me......did it once for my first holiday with girlfriends when we were 16 and although it was a brilliant trip once was enough!!