It is raining cats and dogs! I am not sure where that phase came from but that is what my grandmother would say whenever there was a heavy downpour. Of course if you live anywhere in the U.S. outside of Hawaii, you already know that severe weather has dominated the news all winter. We’ve heard about strong winds toppling sequoia trees in California, blizzard conditions blasting New York City, and an ice storm causing multi-car pile ups in Texas. Even here in Central Florida there has been long spells of cold and dreary gloom.
I sit in the comfort of my living room holding a cup of black coffee and stare out the window. White caps race across the lake and the cypress trees sway in the wind. Standing motionless, a great blue heron has found refuge under a dock. A lightning bolt illuminates the gray darkness giving me a glimpse of the opposite shore. I yearn for spring and wonder when we can hitch the camper and take across the roads once again. Then I remember that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow predicting six more weeks of winter. Ahh darn, I slowly recline back in my chair and take another sip of coffee.
My thoughts drift away to another time. I chuckle. “What are you laughing at, Grammi asks?” “Do you remember our first camping trip together, I replied?” “You mean the time we camped in a leaky tent in the rain, she said?” Yes, that is exactly what I was chuckling about. We were so young and dumb.
It was 1982. I had the brilliant idea to go camping in the Smoky Mountains. I’m sure it was an attempt to recreate the time my parents took my brother and I camping there when we were young boys. I have fond memories of playing in the streams and climbing over big rocks. I also remember seeing lots of bear. A bear unwittingly walked into the side of our tent during the night knocking me from the cot onto the floor. Yes we had folding cots to sleep on. My father had to get up and chase it away. What excitement! Despite the bear stories, Grammi went along with the idea.
We bought a tent. I think from K-mart. It was a cabin tent, sleeps 8, tall enough to standup in. We went to my mother’s house to set it up. Like a lush green carpet my mother always had the best lawn in the county. We could set it up there and not worry about getting it dirty. Inside the box was a rolled up tent, a bag of tent stakes and a bunch of metal poles. Hmm, now this looked intimidating. There were probably twenty or more tent poles of various length, some straight, some with a bend, all designed to fit inside the box from which they came. Each pole had a label affixed with a letter and a number, A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.
We looked for assembly instructions. We looked in the box, on the box, in the bag holding the tent stakes; we unrolled the tent but we could not find the instructions. So Grammi shrugged her shoulders and started inserting one pole into the other. “This looks like it should go like this, she would say.” After a couple of hours and much trial and error our struggles were done. We stood back and admired our new tent. Without further hesitation Grammi unzipped the door and walked inside for the first time. AHA! Laying on the floor inside the tent was the instruction book. Really? We were so young and dumb.
Other than the tent, we also bought a small cooler, folding three-legged stools, sleeping bags and cheap air mattresses. Well…not really air mattresses but inflatable pool floats. They folded up like a taco when we sat on them. I can still see them now; they were bright yellow. That was pretty much it. That’s all we though we needed. We were so young and dumb.
We arrived in The Great Smoky Mountains only to find no vacancies at any of the popular campgrounds. Even in those days the campgrounds filled up in the summer. Who knew, right? We were so young and dumb. Without reservations the ranger told us our only option was a campground on the east side of the park. Cosby Campground was more secluded and away from the desired attractions in the towns of Gatlinburg and Cherokee. We took his advise and drove to Cosby.
We set up the tent in a matter of minutes as we had the instructions in our hand this time. We inflated the pool floats and rolled out the sleeping bags inside the tent. We set the stools around the campfire ring. Then we went on a walk in search of firewood. We had a package of hotdogs we were going to cook over the fire. We were going to cut a stick and whittle a point on one end, stab the hotdog with the stick and hold it over the fire until roasted, just like my father taught me years before. We were so young and dumb.
The forest was damp. Finding dry firewood was challenging but we tried. Grammi spent more than an hour tending a small flame, feeding it pieces of paper and twigs. She was determined and vigorously fanned the flame. Little by little the fire grew.
I watched the new arrivals in the campsite next to us. Their first order of business was to start a fire. I assumed it was to ward off the cool damp air. The first thing they did was pull out a neatly tied bundle of firewood. “Hmm…where did they find that, I thought.” After methodically stacking the wood in the fire ring he squirted the entire pile with lighter fluid. Wow! They had a roaring fire in a matter of minutes. We were so young and dumb.
Then I watched as they erected their tent. First they placed a tarp on the ground and set the tent over top of it. Next, they covered the tent with another tarp and staked it down. They must not have a waterproof tent like us, I thought. We were so young and dumb.
Grammi continued to work her magic on the campfire getting it to a point where she felt we could cook at least one hotdog at a time. It was not to be. Before we could get the dog on the stick the sky let loose. At first it was just the sound of rain hitting the trees above. But soon a steady drip worked it’s way through the foliage extinguishing our fire and chasing us into the tent. It was a miserable night. We didn’t eat dinner. The rain continued on into the morning. Our waterproof tent wasn’t so waterproof. Everything in the tent was wet. Our sleeping bags eventually became soaked. It was cold. I didn’t sleep much. The pool floats deflated. I’m not sure but that may have been a good thing, keeping us from floating away. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. We were so young and dumb.
At first light we threw everything in the trunk of the car and went to Knoxville where we checked into a hotel. We found a laundromat where we dried our clothes and the sleeping bags. Then we got some rest.
The trip was not a complete washout because we planned to spend a few days in Knoxville anyway. It was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair with 16 country representatives. It’s the one and only time we’ve been to a World’s Fair.
We did not let this first camping experience deter us from trying again. We learned from it. Over the course of time we became better campers; we became better prepared. We certainly bought some tarps, but we also bought lanterns, camping stove, camp heater and much more. We were one of Coleman’s best customer. Each trip it seemed we added one more thing we thought we couldn’t do without. We have camped hundreds of times since then. Sometimes even in the rain. Our tent camping days with the children are some of our best memories. It’s what we did as a family. I think we got pretty good at it. But…looking back to when it all started I have to say…we were so young and dumb.
Until next time…happy days and safe travels.