When I was seven years old, my father took the family camping for the first time. We had no equipment that I can recall. There’s a snapshot of my mother, my sister and me all looking groggy as we stretch from sleep in the back of a 1960 station wagon. The wagon had been Dad’s idea. Since the back seat folded down, he figured my mother and he could sleep back there, I could sleep at their feet and my two-year-old sister, Becky, could sprawl out on the front seat.
His plan didn’t work quite the way he’d hoped. It took about two minutes for my little sister to crawl back with the rest of us; then, I wormed my way between my parents soon after. No wonder my mother looks exhausted in the photo — her black hair is all messy and my sister looks like a wild child. I’m not exactly the picture of perfection either.
In spite of that inauspicious start, however, our whole family fell in love with camping. Over time we acquired a camp stove, a lantern, sleeping bags and one of those tents that attached to the back of the open station wagon. That covered area became the ‘bathroom’ for my sister who was in the process of potty training. It was also my ‘dressing room’, providing more space than the crowded tent.
We bought camping dishes and silverware, pots and pans, a coffee pot (the kind you had to brew over an open fire) and many other outdoor accessories. My dad built an enormous black box with drawers and shelves in which to store said items. This behemoth, which could have housed my sister and me, rode on top of the station wagon. My father, standing at 5 feet 6 inches, somehow heaved the black monstrosity onto the car and secured it in its place. He must have been incredibly strong to be able to lift that box. We never had any problems with it moving or falling off. The black box stayed with us, useful as ever, for at least a decade. It retired to ‘Pop’s Place’, a camp my dad bought at the Middle Fork River where he later put a trailer. The black box took its place on the deck, holding all the supplies needed for a picnic.
I often felt sorry for my dad, the lone male among us three girls. He had to do the hard work mostly by himself. Such things as setting up the tent, hoisting the black box, starting and tending the campfire — these were his chores. He also had to put up with our feminine desires about where to set up camp. Since we usually camped in West Virginia state parks or national forests, there were campgrounds set up with bath houses, playgrounds, picnic tables and sometimes, even a pool. My mother invariably wanted to locate nearest the bathroom. I, on the other hand, wanted a woodsy view with atmosphere; my sister always desired a place close to the pool. Around and around the campground we’d drive, looking at each available spot, sometimes lamenting that someone else had beaten us to the absolute best area. Poor Dad would circle and circle until finally, we came up with a place to please everyone.
When we’d graduated from tent to trailer, this search for the perfect spot finally drove my dad to lose his patience. Dad had planned the trip of a lifetime — two weeks at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, then up to DC where we would see all our nation’s capital had to offer. After that, we’d head to New York City for a couple of days. The pinnacle of the trip would be onward to Montreal, Canada, to the World’s Fair where we would spend a whole week. He’d planned this six-week trip with great precision and care.
Somewhere in Canada, we found a rustic campground. As was our custom, we drove all around to find our little niche. We finally located a good site but there was one small problem. Dad had to back the trailer between two large trees to arrive at the designated trailer position. He did so with extreme caution. Once things were settled, Mother and I got out of the car and roamed around. We decided we didn’t like this spot. We told Dad we’d have to move. He mentioned that it had been hard to get in, but we were convinced this would not be a good space. So, he very reluctantly and carefully pulled back out and around the camp we went again. We tried another area but didn’t like it as well as the first. Dad took the wheel yet again and we returned to our original lot. Those two trees were still there and Dad gingerly maneuvered the trailer back into place. Mother and I were still not satisfied. We complained and begged and were convinced there was a better location. After much pleading from the three of us, Dad once again agreed to drive between those trees in search of the perfect lodging. He twisted in his seat to look back, put the car in reverse and gently stepped on the gas.
A terrible crunching sound. Dad hopped out of the driver’s seat and ran to the trailer. The doorknob was on the ground. He didn’t say a word, but backed the trailer into its original space. He began to repair the door as the other three of us got out of the car.
“We are staying right here,” he said in a low voice.
And we did.
She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ’autism.’ What You Long For is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains. Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.com, www.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at email@example.com. Her first chapbook of poetry, Coal, Baby, is available from Finishing Line Press.
Anne’s essay is inspired by her early experiences camping in West Virginia. Editor’s note: Anne allowed me to title this essay. My choice reflects my favorite element of this piece, the patient but firm and final voice of a loving father.