Camping Was the Way to Travel

          I had expected to travel regularly after retiring, but Covid-19 has laid waste to those plans. It is hard to think about future trips not knowing when or if I will feel comfortable traveling again, so I have started reminiscing about past trips. I think back to those times when the spouse and I had few funds beyond those for the necessaries, and travel seemed impossible. We had a car but trip expenses–hotels, motels, restaurants—were inconsistent with paying our rent. So, in the spirit of Judy and Mickey, even though we had not done so before, we said, “Let’s go camping.” If we didn’t pay for a motel but slept in a tent, if we didn’t eat in restaurants while traveling but cooked at a campsite, if we didn’t fly but drove, we could … well, travel.

          We had the Dodge Dart, but we needed other things. We had to forgo our few luxuries for a while and gave up occasional dinners at a Mideast restaurant, replaced bottled wines with jugs, and delayed the purchase of a new sweater and tie in order to buy a tent, sleeping bags, a camping stove, lantern, and air mattresses.

          We had two weeks for a trip, and there were so many places we had not been. I don’t remember how the decision was made, but we decided to go to Nova Scotia. It’s a long drive, and there was a car ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, which would have cut hours, perhaps even a day, of driving off the trip, but the ferry’s cost put it out of our range. And, we enjoyed driving and had never seen Maine or New Brunswick. So, Nova Scotia the long way ‘round it was.

          On the first day of this first camping adventure, we drove from Brooklyn to Ogunquit, Maine, and pulled into a campground where we had reserved a spot, using in those primitive days a book (from Rand McNally?) that listed campgrounds around the country on the left side of the pages followed by all sort of symbols describing the place. Through the years we got quite good at scanning the symbolic trees, showers, and tables to find the sites that we might like, but this was a learning adventure for us.

We were camping, but we were not looking for a primitive backwoods experience. We were not backpackers. Our camping was a substitute for more expensive accommodations, and the campgrounds we mostly stayed in had a building with public toilets, sinks, and often showers, as this one did. Our tent was meant to substitute for a small motel room. It was not a WWII pup tent clone but about eight feet square and its center just high enough to stand up in. Luxurious, right?

You might think that we would have practiced putting up the tent before we had embarked, but no. This was our first time, and tents did not then simply pop open like an umbrella. We had to assemble poles and drive tent stakes, which took some effort because we had yet to learn that a three pound hammer was better than a regular one for the job. Although erecting the tent might have been a severe test of a marriage, we got it up, and through the years we developed a good, efficient routine for putting up and taking down the tent. Yeah, this camping idea was a good one.

Although we were not going to be backpackers off alone in the woods, we thought that our camping was going to keep us in touch with nature more than other travelers, but we immediately found “camping” meant different things to different people. A few sites over from ours a “camper” was parked with wires going into and out of it from all angles. A man in a lawn chair, beer in hand, was watching television (!). We did not get the point, but through the years, we saw the equivalent of this many times and always felt a self-righteous superiority to them, but of course, backpackers had a similar reaction to our camping.

We had stopped in Ogunquit because the spouse knew a colleague who had a family place there. It was my first visit to a seaside, summer resort, and I was seeing stuff I had never seen before. We all went out to dinner, and I had my first taste of lobster. Our camping was doing what I hoped that it would: giving us new experiences.

We continued up the beautiful Maine coast the next day into New Brunswick. Our gas station map was mostly blank showing few roads other than the waterfront one we were on. As far as we could tell, New Brunswick was mostly uninhabited forest land. We passed an elegant, old summer resort. We talked about how wonderful it would be to stay there someday, but we never really expected that we would ever be able to afford it.

Setting up the tent for the second time, we damaged a tent spike, and a significant portion of the next day was spent in search of a replacement. It wasn’t exactly a survival moment, but we learned that a large part of camping was coping with the contingencies that arose—where could we buy milk, hamburger rolls, insect repellent, ice, firewood, tent stakes? But this was a good thing because these quotidian matters happily displaced concerns about jobs, political news, and family problems. Nevertheless, tent stakes were a perennial problem. They were aluminum and seemed to break or bend easily. Finding places to buy spares was not a simple matter. Being quick studies, we soon learned to purchase extras in advance.

This was a time not only before podcasts but even before cassettes. At the campsite we blissfully did not have music or news or sports broadcasts, but in the car we sometimes searched for local radio stations. Close to the Nova Scotia border, we found a French one. It came from a little French-speaking town. I, of course, knew that French was spoken in Quebec, but I did not know that there were French-speaking pockets throughout New Brunswick, and I wondered what it was like to grow up in a town of a few thousand surrounded by those speaking another language. Travel, I learned, could free the imagination to consider such things.

(concluded February 22)