Matt Dickerson: Car camping has its own charms

What, exactly, is “camping?” It depends who you are talking to. Growing up in my family, “camping” did not just mean sleeping in a tent; it meant being in the wilderness. If you could hear voices from a nearby tent, it wasn’t camping. If you could drive to your tent site, it also did not count. Staying at a KOA campground certainly did not qualify. My family called that “car camping.” The term was definitely derisive. Car camping involved no suffering and no choices. Backpackers can only bring the 60 or so liters they can fit in their packs, limited by whatever weight they are willing to carry. Even canoe trips have limitations on gear. Car campers could bring everything they wanted, including the kitchen sink. The gear you bring on a car camping trip always expands to fill all available space.
The first camping trip I remember taking, I was eight years old. We were 60 miles down lumber roads into the North Maine Woods on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. We could have counted on our fingers the number of other faces we saw that week. It would have taken only one hand if we didn’t count the warden and rangers. (Our tent was an old canvas army surplus job that leaked like a sieve and collapsed in any wind over 3 mph — but that’s another story.)
For my wife, on the other hand, “camping” meant staying in a motel rather than a hotel, and having to swim in an unheated outdoor pool. Or perhaps renting a cabin on a lake and having no television for a week.
The term “hiking” also meant something different. For me, going on a “hike” was climbing a mountain. For her, it meant a leisurely walk down the road and up a small hill to a local fire tower. I learned of these different connotations when, on our ninth date, I invited her on a “hike.” We climbed New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock. At a mere 3,165 feet elevation at the summit, I did think of it as a leisurely walk. Deborah, who got a bad bruise on her shin scrambling up some rocks, and actually got sweaty, had a rather different opinion. I was fortunate there was a 10th date.
The year we got married, I twice took Deborah to upstate New York to the Thousand Island State Park. Since it was a car camping trip, I figured it would be relatively tame — not even qualifying as camping, though I didn’t tell her that. But it was her first time sleeping in a tent and she was nervous. There were no hot showers, and I had to cook our meals over my little backpacking stove. We were definitely roughing it.
Twenty-six years later, I can say that my wife and I and our expectations of camping have met at a very happy middle ground. Deborah has climbed and tented on Maine’s third-highest mountain with me. She has also gone camping and canoeing with me on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. No showers for an entire week. We have taken overnight biking trips from campground to campground.
To my amazement, the year we took a 30-day family cross-country trip to Yellowstone and back, it was Deborah who wanted to camp our way out and back. We spent only two nights in motels. We camped in state parks and county parks and national forests and national parks. It was all car camping, of course. But we loved it. I loved it. With the exception of a miserable night at a KOA near Niagara Falls, we did not have a bad experience. Most of the parks offered at least a certain amount of privacy. Many were stunningly beautiful. There were hiking paths, and historical sites, and rivers to fish in, and places to swim. (Some even had showers.)
And I actually got used to it. I like the freedom of bringing a few extra luxuries in the car, but still being able to get off on day hikes into the wilderness. Indeed, the older I get, the more I like those luxuries, like using an inflatable air mattress instead of a thin camping pad. One night in North Dakota, when it was raining and we didn’t feel like setting up a tent, we paid an extra $25 or so and got a cabin. And I wasn’t even embarrassed.
Thanks in part to those experiences we now are making a point of exploring Vermont’s state parks. Last weekend, the two of us packed our car to the gills with everything we could possibly want, and drove up to the Little River State Park on the Waterbury Reservoir. And then unloaded our gear into a cabin. Yes, a cabin. Not a tent. A lovely and comfortable little bunkhouse with electric lights and a ceiling fan (though no running water) on a steep wooded hill overlooking a quiet cove on the reservoir.
Our friends Louis and Susan Nop joined us. They brought their own car. Our car was full of our own gear. No room for passengers. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the quiet of a relatively private little wooded picnic area overlooking the water. We cooked dinner over a fire in a grate. Deborah even took a hot shower. We didn’t have to set up or take down a tent. In the morning, after making coffee and breakfast over my backpacking stove, we went on a bike ride around one corner of the reservoir and along the river. (Yes, we brought our bikes.) We cooked lunch by the beach. Then we went canoeing with the Nops around the reservoir. (Yes, we brought our canoe.) I took some casts and caught a couple perch and a bass. (Yes. I brought my fishing gear.) The day ended with a swim.
We are now looking around at Vermont’s other state parks, and planning our next camping trip. Our goal is to visit all of them, though Little River State Park was so enjoyable we’d also like to go back there. Wherever we go, we will probably bring our bikes. If it is a park on water, we will bring our canoe. We might stay in a cabin, and we might stay in a tent, but it will be a car camping trip. And will I use the term in pride. 

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