Vanishing Into Something Better

After living in Dallas for a few years, Alan and I were desperate to get out of the noisy, crowded urban life. Though camping had been sparse in our youth, a camping and traveling honeymoon sounded exactly right. Our wedding wishlist had included our most beloved gifts: ice chest, tent, stove, sleeping bags, and all the cool little things that make camping more fun. We converted a Dodge van and went in search of the mountains and water we’d been missing in our part of the vast, dusty flatlands of Texas. We set out for California heading east.

Cut off all my hair, ready to go

We circumnavigated the country for three months, mostly skirting bigger cities, searching out the remote campgrounds. Every night we set up the tent and stove, sometimes built a fire, and occasionally slept in the van. With few firm plans besides Grateful Dead tickets in Minneapolis in early August, we rambled through the southeast, up the coast to Maine, across the northern states to Seattle, and finally down through California, never tiring of the outdoor life.

Everything we needed within reach

It’s been forty years, but I still recall the night on the Blue Ridge Parkway when we hunkered down on the front seat, relentless rain pounding on the roof, and watched a family of skunks stroll by. I remember our surprise and joy of coming into DC on July 4th where dozens of bands played under canopies on the lawns. I had an unforgettable evening cooking fresh salmon over an open fire on a verdant bluff on the coast of Maine. Ah, the open road, the endless cornfields, the surprise and wonder. It was the beginning of a confirmed love affair with living and sleeping outside, “small kingdoms breathing around me.”

I’d forgotten those red overalls – how I loved them!

We settled down, but then camped with our two children (skipping the early years when life exhausted and overwhelmed us). By the time they were four and six, we found like-minded friends and camped year-round all over California. We made a dedicated “camping closet” with all our gear, and honed our routine until we could set out almost without thought. Camping with groups of friends and family made it all easier.

One non-mobile baby Marina, when camping was easy. 1984. Our next trip was four years later.

I was always proud of how my kids took on their own campouts in their later years. Ethan organized his Coachella buddies by securing a campsite, organizing food, and making sure everyone had plenty of water. Marina camped with friends too, and then chose to challenge herself with a three week wilderness backpacking trip in college, in spite of her dislike of bugs.

Recently a friend wrote about her love of solo camping and I found myself feeling wistful for a nature retreat – quiet, energizing, simple. My own habits and needs can be dealt with without much ado. On the other hand, sharing the work, the joy, and the experience is also part of the charm, and there’s nothing better than playing music with others in the trees, a part of our camping tradition. 

We haven’t seemed to gin up the energy to do what it takes to get the grandkids out camping. I’m daunted by what it would take, and it feels like a big push, looming larger than when we camped with our own kids. I have to admit, I’m slowing down. Our own campouts have grown fewer and further between (though once I’m out there, it’s pure exhausting joy). But the kids are getting older, they need this experience, and Oregon is a camping paradise with so many possibilities near rivers and lakes, in forests and mountains, and by the ocean.

I’ve been curious about the Clackamas River for a long time, but have only driven by it, never put my feet in or walked alongside, though it’s not far from Portland. It starts out in the Cascades, winds its way into farm and then urban lands, and empties into the Willamette River. When I heard about Milo McIver State Park, and how it stretches out alongside the river, it looked like a potential camping spot with the grandkids, and it was time to go on a reconnaissance mission.

The campground loops looked promising, a lovely setting amidst tall trees that separated each campsite from the other. Campers had various sorts of fishing gear and boats for the nearby Lake Estacada, where there are also kayak rentals. Just looking at the colorful tablecloths on picnic tables, the pop-ups and tents, had me full of longing.

We hiked a couple loops, five miles in all, passing swaths of white and pink foxgloves, dotted with raindrops. The trails followed the river for short stints, and it was pretty in a State Park kind of way, though not wilderness beauty. The restrooms were great. But how spoiled I am by Oregon’s riches that I can even say that the trails are nothing special! There’s a fish hatchery, equestrian trails, a disc golf course, a dam, road crossings, and occasional piles of branches and trail-building trash.

PHOTO BY ALAN (check out his blog)
Song sparrows make everything better

It looked like a good place to bring the kids. There were plenty of birds, few people, and the river was peaceful, just us and the trees and the sound of water. And that’s all I really need.

Sleeping In The Forest
I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

Mary Oliver

21 thoughts on “Vanishing Into Something Better

  1. Oh my gosh! We have the same history! In 1976, my new husband and I converted our VW van and traveled around the country for three months, in Philadelphia for the bi-centennial Fourth, but otherwise with no schedule. Forty-six years later, it remains the one thing I’ve ever done in my life that I would do again—and not change a thing.

    Camping with grandchildren exhausts me, even with their parents in charge, so I’m grateful they take them and I don’t have to. You rock. (Thank you for linking my post! I’m trail-spoiled too; and campground, I’ve never stayed in a state park.)

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  2. Your post reminded me of all the fantastic camping trips we took when our kids were young-including a trip across the country to the Four Corners when my boys were 7,4, and 6 weeks old. The 6-week old, Gabe, is now 31, and will be married in a few weeks!

    Stacey Meadows

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, 7, 4, and an infant! But I knew how intrepid you’ve been with your sailing adventures! I’ll bet those were some adventurous adventures!
      Mazal tov on the marriage, hope you enjoy the wedding to the max! Thanks for being here Stacey, it means a lot to me.

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  3. Loved reading this piece. I feel the admiration and appreciation you have for the wilderness in your voice. I have recently started geocaching, and this has toughened me up a little bit, but I still scream at the first sight of a bug, so camping will likely always be a no for me. Despite how much I love being outside these days having just left the city after so many years. Really enjoy your writing.

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  4. What wonderful memories. I also took my son camping, but now his idea of a vacation is a luxury beach resort with a drink by the pool. Oh well. You offer what you can as a parent.

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  5. Oh, I can only long for that kind of history. So wonderful to read and see the visual evidence. (I love the red cover-alls too!) My family never camped and my young adult version was all about a good party in the woods. Every year for the last few I have promised myself I would do it, but so far it’s a promise not kept. I have the wonder and surprise and a confirmed love of being outside, down. Maybe this will be the thing to inch me closer. I love the whole idea of it as seen through your eyes. Thank you so much for writing this. Pure, exhausting joy never sounded so good. 

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    • Interesting idea to long for a history – as opposed to hoping for a future. It sounds like the makings of a sci-fi novel doesn’t it? But I do love a good party in the woods still. And, you have me beat on the intrepid getting-out-and-about by a mile. And a comfy bed is a worth a lot. It’s the princess version. :-). Thanks BR!

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  6. My first hiking venture was with my future husband to Lake Ozetet. It’s in the most far north corner of Washington. I thought camping was going to the cabin. The only gear I had was an old Coleman, flannel,heavy sleeping bag. The trail was an easy, flat trail with boardwalk in many sections. Jack would make two trips to get all our gear. We arrived at the sandy lake beach and met a woman who’d been camping with two young kids. The night before she’d chased a bear away with a burning log she pulled from the fire. I waited while Jack retraced his steps to the car and back again. We had a great time. No bears and many overnight hikes into the back country and places close to home. Our kids spent summers under a tent or on a trail and yearned for a ‘normal vacation.’ like their friends had at Disney Land. these days I’ve retreated back to the cabin camping as any real bed usually feels better on this back than any inflated air mattress. Thanks for the memories.

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  7. I love when my posts serve as a writing prompt! Great memories indeed. Lucky you. My kids liked “normal” too, and they got some of that as well, especially with their grandparents. I will say that we searched for years for better air mattresses and finally found that the thickest Thermrest (or REI knockoff) is quite comfy – just the right firmness. So glad the bear didn’t return – that’s one thing (of many) that keeps me out of the backcountry! I’ve been eyeing yurts lately….

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  8. Nancy I felt as if I traveled your journey with you and Alan!! So descriptive! Reminded me of our family trip when I was 5 almost 6 to Suttle lake, Oregon. My older sister and I had stick horses, flip flops and matching sleevless tops et shorts. We caught 6 inch trout and had to release….too small for the campfire. We had the proverbial Smores to top it off! Your photos are tops for memory lane! MaryJo

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  9. Pingback: Milo McIver State Park, July 2022 – Discoveries

  10. Great memories and beautiful pictures! I remember how you were always ready to get going on a camping trip, and that you set up the tent for me at Strawberry!

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  11. Love the stories and the photos – and those red overalls, oh my!
    We camped in our younger days a lot and later, took Bekah with us. The first time we took her, she was just a wee baby and cried for hours, until we finally packed up and left in the middle of the night, not wanting to continue to disturb the entire campground. (We tried many wrong-headed things with her as a baby, including a misguided Santana concert when she was just a few months old. When the music started, she did the startle response, then wrapped her arms around herself and went to sleep; I think her hearing was not harmed…)
    As she grew older, she learned to love camping and continues to camp with her husband and daughters. Me – not so much. After one very cold September night in Yosemite/Tuolumne Meadows (10-15 years ago?), I said, That’s it! No more camping! And sadly, we haven’t since. (There is a back/ air mattress issue also….)
    I have been feeling a growing longing for it, however, and your story encourages me. Got to get those high quality Thermarests! And organize the gear!!
    Thanks for writing, Nancy! You are so observant and descriptive with your details. Love it.

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    • Ah, I love love love to hear the young Rachel stories. We took a 3 month old Ethan with us to the Dead and Dylan at Anaheim, cotton balls taped to his tiny ears. I think he’s ok. 🙂 The rough nights of camping were bolstered by lots of tarps, lots of extra warm clothing, Mr. Heater, and people we love. A huge help. Packing to go home in torrential rain isn’t one of my favorite memories. Get the fattest thermarest they have. Thanks for reading Rachel.

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