How two families get ready to hit the road. The Johnsons: prototypes of the prepared travelers

Two families. Two journeys. Here is a side-by-side look at very different types of summer camping excursions, and the way two families prepared for them. The Johnsons leave every year for a single campground, take their pop-up trailer, put down roots for two weeks, and enjoy the surroundings. The Swans were on a drive from place to place in a 30-foot motor home. These families' experiences give two extremes in the art of family survival on the camping circuit. If this is February, Jim Johnson must be packing for July.

The large man with a generous smile and ample, neatly groomed beard has been camping every summer for five years; and he's learned to plan far ahead for camping vacations. Every week, he and his wife pick up a few cans of vegetables or potatoes and salt them away in their basement for their summer camping trip.

He is the prototype of the careful camper and meticulous planner, a model for those who want every last piece of their trip to fall neatly into place.

Sitting in the warm kitchen of his home here -- a seemingly endless procession of daughters and sons-in-law, grandchildren, and others bundling in and out of the frigid outdoors -- Johnson warms quickly to his favorite subject: camping and preparing for camping.

``Every year,'' he says, underlining the importance of these subjects in his life, ``the kids ask me what I want for Christmas. And I always tell them something for the camper. This year they gave me a port-o-potty.'' It sat in the living room ever since, until his wife removed it for a reporter's visit. Now it sits downstairs with the beginnings of this year's early summer stocks.

By the time July rolls in, it will be all but buried in the omnivorously accumulated materiel of a family determined to have everything they need before they leave.

The Johnsons are more than compulsive packers, however, as Mrs. Johnson explains: ``We get two weeks' vacation a year. And every year, you see people at the campground hunting for their hair spray, going to pick up a flashlight. It's just such a waste of time.''

The Johnsons go in a pop-up trailer with a companion tent and a large dinner canopy. But space is still at a premium. So they buy carefully, and plan where things can go. All the canned goods, for instance, are stored under the table the whole time they are there. But beans and potatoes are only the beginning. ``We go up to Heartland [a discount food outlet] and buy rib-eye steaks and freeze them. On the road, I'll pack them in ice. And they'll stay there a good 12 hours. I have a big freezer downstairs. Also, we found a 31/2-cubic-foot refrigerator with a freezer in Maine. I put it on skids next to the camper.''

The 20-foot pop-up sleeps 4 -- and it's snug at that. So planning of space and having just the right size for every item becomes an important issue.

``Tupperware's the greatest thing in the world for camping,'' says Mr. Johnson. He and his wife fill up a few bowls with frozen spaghetti-and-meatballs over the winter months. They even make ice for the trip, tubs of it, frozen a little at a time. And while it's freezing, he is upstairs studying road maps and Wheeler's Campground Directory, checking out interesting locations. They write ahead for brochures and site plans and reserve a site -- situated with easy access to the comfort station and the pool and game room.

It was also an early discovery that an ample supply of amusements had to be brought. But that all-purpose amuser, television, went quickly by the boards. ``Reception is so terrible in these areas,'' Johnson says. ``Once in New Hampshire we sat up watching the Boy Scout Jamboree. It was the only thing we could pull in.''

For other amusements they bring a huge cloth checker game, yard darts, kites, whiffleball bats, and a basketball.

Just talking about these things, it seems, has a similar effect to the camping experience. Johnson, his wife, son Michael, and son-in-law Matt begin to laugh about their experiences. And maybe that's a major byproduct of all this early planning: With the time spent thinking about and preparing for the trip, you're partway there already.

So what if the sky looks like snow? You're packing for July.

We were on a forced drive from campsite to campsite, roadbound all of the time. Our itinerary required us to pull up roots every morning -- and it found us hauling into some unpredetermined campground at 7 or 8 o'clock at night. Most of the time, we couldn't even cook on an open fire outside. When we cooked on the stove in our motor home, we had to keep it simple, because it was generally late, everyone was cranky, and there was simply no time to get fancy about it.

So what we developed as a strategy for family survival under these circumstances had little to do with cans of potatoes.

It became a matter of finding the things that would keep the peace, ways of attending to each person's need for something to keep him in reasonably sound mind. It was a matter of finding valuable things along the way. And finding that which you never knew you had.

As a starting point, let's list the things we did remember to bring that had the greatest value, in the order of their importance:

One husband, one wife, two children, one dog; two tapes of songs from the '60s; a chess set; one Reader's Digest ``America from the Road''; the motor home; books -- parents', teen-age, and children's fare -- talking books, and coloring books; clothing; two pocket knives; insect repellent; a fishing rod.

This is a carefully refined list, which would probably stand as my irreducible minimum of essentials if told that in one hour I would have to leave for a year's journey on the road with the family. I offer it in the spirit of one who has wheeled a shopping cart through the great-outdoors section of a local department store and fallen prey to thinking, ``Gee, a canteen, I'll need one of those; I'd better get a compass, too; hmmm . . . wonder how much mosquito netting we'll need.''

One could live without mosquito netting. We couldn't even find the canteen for the first three weeks -- and it is a lot easier to read the little ``s'' on a highway marker than to find true south on a compass.

Also, there are food stores in most regions of the country that we are likely to visit. So, while stocking up in advance makes a lot of sense, still you can always stop at the local supermarket (the chief drawback here being that one never knows where the good buys are). Since we traveled with a built-in refrigerator, we were able to keep fruits and fresh vegetables. We nibbled on nuts and raisins and granola bars for snacks -- and we drank real juices. The children ate juice pops. We all ate ice cream.

These are not, however, the things that were lifesavers on the trip.

The real business of such a journey is not, for example, in seeing a predetermined list of sights. It is the slow process of annealing that happens when a family is lifted out of the rigid patterns that make up school and work and eating and sleep. You get to know one another as people.

Anything, therefore, that promotes community activity while in transit proves most valuable. For us, a tape of music from the '60s began the process. It bridged the gap of tastes between '60s-generation parents and a teen-ager thoroughly steeped in the sounds of the '80s. The chess set played a similar function. Neither my son nor I improved our chess game during our various attempts. But we sat down and faced each other, peaceably and with a thought process in common.

Of course, we are not speaking exclusively here of an idyllic family tryst in the woods. Most of a journey that eats up 6,000 miles in six weeks is hard driving, during which time one faces the necessity of fending off boredom, internecine warfare, and general ill humor.

What was called for, and what my wife creatively organized, was a carefully crafted plan for doling out books, games, snacks, drawing pads, magazines, and her own implacable form of law enforcement.

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