One Happy Camper

The faintly damp scent of tent nylon mixed with the bracing crispness of night air conjure up a sensation like no other. Especially when the earthy aroma of campfire is added to the mix. Very few olfactory delights on earth can compare with that potent combination.

More than 35 years of camping memories have firmly established for me that sleeping outdoors is one of life’s grandest pleasures. There is a kind of built-in mythology to camping that imparts a sense of harmony with all things — with nature, with animals, with our ancestors, with our selves. Camping makes me feel connected to the earth. It makes me feel like a kid again. And it makes my soul feel wide awake, even as my body is drifting off to sleep.

But it’s totally fine with me if Greyson just digs sleeping next to his papa in a room with a cool skylight and a soundtrack of crickets and katydids. There’s no need for him to get all philosophical about it.

Over the past two weekends, I’ve gone backyard camping 3 times with my 3-year-old nature boy. Each time I told him where we were going to sleep that night, I’m not sure which of the 2 of us was more giddy. I couldn’t wait to hear the ziiiii-iiiii-iiiiip of the C-shaped tent door and crawl onto the nylon floor to burrow into our sleeping bags and blankets. And Greyson couldn’t wait to climb “up the mountain” (our septic mound) to our home away from home. About 50 feet away from home, to be exact.


Before we settled into the tent each night, I showed Greyson the starry sky, unimpeded by city lights since we live deep in the countryside. I asked him, “How many stars are there?” On the first night, Greyson said “Dere’s a million!” On the second night, our aspiring astronomer aimed for a more precise estimate. With his tiny finger silhouetted against the night sky, he started counting the stars in a solemn whisper: “One, two, three, four…” Greyson wrapped up his count at 22 stars, which in my book constitutes a pretty noble attempt.

After that, we crawled into the tent and zipped ourselves in. And with Greyson in my lap, I read my little bookworm 3 or 4 books by the light of a headlamp and then sang “Baby Beluga” (his favorite non-Rich Mullins song), with him chiming in whenever I forgot a line. Finally, with the tent now dark and stars visible through the mesh skylight, Greyson asked his nightly question: “What could we dream about?” I regaled him with as much animal-based dream fodder as I could conjure up.

Greyson was beside himself the whole time. The first night, it took him a full hour and a half to fall asleep because he was so giddy about the whole experience.

I could totally relate.

It’s gratifying to know that I’m doing what I can to impart the enjoyment (and eventually, the memory) of camping to Greyson’s burgeoning sense of himself and the world. Next year Violet and Danielle can join the fun, and I’ll add pre-bedtime campfires to the itinerary.

I would be thrilled if our kids grew to think of camping as part of their identity. A passion that captures something vital about their true selves, once they begin to be cognizant of such a thing. My older brothers and I can all attest to how meaningful it is to have joyous family camping memories embedded among our warmest recollections of childhood. My parents made it a priority to take us on long weekend getaways in their cozy pop-up camper. And I intend to do the same (although a family-sized tent might be more within our budget).

To this day, the aroma of campfire conjures up worlds for me. It evokes the feeling of a campground as a wooded kingdom to be explored, a kingdom in which my family owned one special parcel of land. I remember running my Matchbox cars along the gnarled roots of the trees on our campsite. I remember roasting S’mores — along with one of those same Matchbox cars each night — over a crackling campfire. (It would appear that my parents were okay with their boys harboring just a touch of pyromania.) I remember my dad regaling us boys with fantastical tales of adventure while we were, quite unsuccessfully, trying to fall asleep with the musty, smoke-tinged scent of canvas all around us.

I remember all of these things with warmth in my glowing heart, like a campfire that never goes out. And I love knowing that my own kids will someday have their own set of camping recollections to remember with warmth and to carry into their adult years. If I’m very lucky, these memories will help encapsulate for them a personal worldview that is as big as the forest and as clear as the night air and as evocative as the crackling embers of those very campfires.

But for now, I’ll just savor the sheer delight of lying next to my 3-year-old son in a tent, singing a duet about beluga whales and giving him whimsical fodder for his animal-filled dreams, as we gaze up through the skylight at somewhere between 22 and a million stars.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s