When camping: No tent, no glory

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But we're discovering that simple camping is anything but simple.

The first summer, eight of us crammed into Liz's dilapidated van and headed for the Black Hills of South Dakota. On departure day, Dad used clothesline to tie down our gear on the van's roof since it had no luggage rack. The rope worked great - the first day. But the second morning we didn't have Dad's Boy Scout knotting skills. We were traveling down the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway when screams erupted from the kids.

Glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw our luggage flopping against the back window as the clothesline blew loose in the wind. If the tent and sleeping bags catapulted off the van at 65 miles an hour, I could imagine the newspaper headline: "Major pileup caused by incompetent campers."

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So we wound the rope around and around the luggage - and tied it to the door handles inside the van. It was quite a production getting the doors open whenever we stopped for breaks, and I noticed Liz looking enviously at thepalaces on wheels that passed us by.

That year all eight of us slept in one tent. The mercury climbed past 90 degrees F., so we stayed in a RV park with a pool. In RV parks, tenters are the untouchable class, relegated to slum lots. Our campsite was the size of a postage stamp and located a mere 20 yards from train tracks.

When we set up, we assumed the track was no longer in use. To our chagrin, the next morning at 6, we found outwe were wrong. No one slept late on that vacation.

In the evenings, Liz and I ambled through the campground ogling the mammoth RVs with air conditioning and satellite dishes. But we remained smug. "That isn't real camping," insisted Liz.

A comment from a park ranger in Albert Lea, Minn., confirmed our feelings of superiority. "You ladies deserve Mother of the Year awards for roughing it like this," he said. "And your kids are so well behaved."

We smiled, but neglected to tell him that the reason our kids went to sleep when the sun went down was because Liz and I couldn't light a campfire. We also forgot to bring lanterns, and there weren't enough flashlights to go around.

The next summer we headed for Illinois, and our simple camping philosophy began to evolve. We hotly debated Liz's decision to bring along a small television.

"It's not real camping with a TV," I argued.

"It'll keep the kids out of our hair," Liz replied.

I protested weakly, and then read in peace while six kids crammed around a five-inch screen.

Last year we caravanned to Gettysburg, Pa., and Washington, D.C. After years of driving junkyard specials, Liz had a new SUV. She had room to pack lots of gear, and so we bought a screen tent and proudly moved up the camping hierarchy.

After we arrived, it started to rain. It rained as we tromped through battlefields. It rained as we toured the nation's capital. It rained - but it stayed 97 degrees.

Our screen tent was useless. We had one small tarp, but it leaked and didn't stretch far enough to shelter the fire pit from the rain. My son held an umbrella over a cheesy potato casserole for an hour one night in an effort to keep supper dry.

"We're instilling character into the kids," I said to Liz. She looked longingly at a nearby RV as rain dribbled down her nose.

"By next summer you'll have forgotten this misery," I insisted to the kids, who had vowed never to camp again.

Last week Liz called. She had bought a small RV. It's old and not fancy, but it's not a tent. "You're selling out," I told her. "What about character building? What about Camping Mothers of the Year?"

"I'm too old for all that," she said bluntly.

Despite my sister, I'm trying to cling to my simple camping philosophy.

But yesterday a sporting-goods catalog arrived in the mail. The pages were filled with everything a camper could desire.

Maybe I'll bend my philosophy just a bit. I definitely need a luggage rack on the roof of my car. Camping Mother of the Year or not, I refuse to revert to the days of tying a clothesline to my door handles.

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