The other day, my editor was peppering me with ideas for my next column and suggested I do a “Top 10” list. I’m a sucker for a top 10 list. They’re great because they either help you with a problem, validate your feelings on an issue or give you something to disagree with. Lately, my family has taken up camping. So my editor suggested “10 ways to work on my book while camping” because her entire concept for this column is to tease me about how long my book is taking. The problem is, on our last week-long camping trip I didn’t even bother to bring my laptop. My editor doesn’t have kids, so everything that she thinks is “fun” she also thinks, “this might be fun with kids.” Which is why she still enjoys theme parks, and I would pay $400 to go to Orlando and NOT enter a theme park. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are awesome. But taking them anywhere is like having a two-kid “focus group” offering real-time opinions on, well, everything.
Then she suggested: 10 things that make camping with kids easy. Ha ha ha ha ha haaaa! Camping. Kids. Easy.
Actually, she not too far off. In many ways, camping makes dealing with kids easier. Camping removes some of the things that cause strife between an 8-year-old boy and 5-year-old girl, and their parents. Let me start by saying that our kids get along pretty well. But when they do fight, it’s like a cat fight erupting in an alley: It escalates quickly, without warning, and it’s loud. Turns out, camping soothes the savage beast. Here's why.
1. No electronics. We don’t let them bring their tablets. Tablets are great for getting the kids to be quiet and tune out. But on a road trip, their limitations can cause as many problems as their advantages. Kids just don’t understand the internet and wifi. They hop in the car and think Netflix is going to work as they roll down the street. Furthermore, the 8-year-old is just beginning to grasp the concept of “battery-life.” Our daughter, however, is completely outraged every single time a device runs out of power. 5% battery remaining? No problems! Let's watch Frozen! Which brings me to #2:
2. Music indoctrination. In the absence of other entertainment, we have the radio! Our van has a booming sound system so we can pump the tunes to a volume that prevents us from being able to hear their screams from the back seat. Until she told me about her childhood road trips, my wife’s disturbingly deep knowledge of Bob Seger lyrics made me wonder if she spent her twenties following his tour bus. I mean, she wasn’t even born when “Night Moves” came out. We can now warp our children in a similar way.
3. The great outdoors! This is obvious. When we took the kids to Fort Wilderness (Disney’s insect-free version of Yellowstone), they were content to play in the mud with sticks, rather than wait 90 minutes for the Peter Pan ride. They always manage to run off and make up a game with whatever they find… rocks, shells, puddles, and trees. Entertainment in the outdoors is free and abundant.
4. Sleep. All that exploring, the long walks, the running around. By 9 p.m. they fall into a fresh-air induced coma, so deep you could extract their teeth without waking them. In our camping set-up they sleep in the van, which is attached to our tent through the two open back doors. No, we are not all sleeping in the same tepee like the Plains Indians. With a two-month summer road trip on the horizon, we’re not about to scar them with that experience — if you catch my drift. (Talking about snoring… of course.)
5. Roughing it. When our cadre of friends started having kids, several of them took camping trips with their babies and toddlers. The idea of camping with a baby who wakes up three times a night and can’t be set down on the ground sounded just plain miserable. And I still think that camping with a toddler is miserable because toddlers, in general, are miserable traveling companions. But man, living outdoors in the dirt is what these kids were made to do. And this shouldn’t come as such a shock when we consider how they live in the indoors. I’ll never understand why humans stopped living in houses with dirt floors. The other day I found a chicken tender on my daughter’s dresser. It was two months old. She fell asleep with an open Sharpie in her bed. Marker everywhere. It’s exactly like college, come to think of it.
6. No toys. We don’t have to ask our kids to pick up after themselves. Sure, they each bring a little stash. Life is so much better without the bins of Legos and Shopkins to clean up at the end of the day. Seriously, who came up with these Shopkins? What does Shopkin even mean? It’s just a bunch of tiny, unrelated, gumball-machine-quality objects with little faces. Their only redeeming feature is that they hurt less than Legos when you step on them. And, like Legos, when I find a lone Shopkin on the floor, strayed from its flock, I just throw it away. It’s the plot to Toy Story 4.
7. Life slows down. No swim lessons, no dance, no baseball practice, no playdates. When we’re camping, we leave all that rushing around behind. My wife once interviewed a World War II POW and he said that the most dangerous points for prisoners were times of capture and release — basically any time they were being moved. The same goes for kids. Example: Friday afternoon my daughter never wants to go to her dance class at the YMCA. She throws a fit, feigns illness and refuses to get dressed. Tempers flare because we paid for this joy and dammit, we’re going. It’s volatile. And yes, I compared my kid to a POW, which makes us her captors. OK, that’s a politically insensitive characterization of POWs. Clearly the parents are the prisoners.
8. Personal growth. There’s a reason they take troubled teens out into the wilderness. A person can gain a lot from connecting with the beauty and peace of the outdoors. For kids, it gives a chance for their maturity to come through. A while back I gave my son a dull little pocket knife that is only dangerous in the sense that if you ever desperately needed to cut something, it wouldn’t. I overheard a a kid from another campsite say to my son, “You have a pocketknife?” My son said, “Yeah, my dad trusts me.” When I was about 10 years old, I got a Swiss Army knife for Christmas. Within two minutes I’d cut my finger, bleeding all over my brand new NFL Vibrating Football Field. Only my brother spotted the carnage, and he kept his mouth shut. One might say I was too young to have that knife. But I cut myself, and I dealt with it myself. (This is not endorsed by my wife, and she finds this whole logic misguided.)
9. We’re all having fun. Modern parents are burdened with this strange pressure to tailor their lives around their kids’ activities. This results in standing around playgrounds, children’s museums and birthday parties, bored to tears. Parents know that feeling of dread when they find a birthday invitation in their kid’s backpack. I swear my wife finds them, marks the date and puts them back. By the time I find the invitation, she has deftly scheduled an important meeting or gym class. I’m the one who shows up looking like a single dad at party full of moms who already know each other. My shadiness is amplified when I arrive in a 17 foot van conversion with our camping mattress spread out in the center. “I think he lives in it,” they whisper.
10. Holy smokes. Did I say there were ten of these things? The memories! When I look back on my childhood, I don’t remember what I did on Saturdays (aside from watch The Smurfs.) But I vividly remember our summer camping trips to the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. I remember the Swedish hang glider we picked up after he crashed in the road in front of us. I remember the terror of having a bear sniffing our tent 12 inches above my head. I remember each evening, watching the shadows of the Sierras creeping across the valley and over the White Mountains in a reverse sunset, and eating rainbow trout that we caught that day and fried in a cast iron skillet. This is why we’re alive.
My bio alludes to the unfortunate circumstances that my genetics have put me in. But in a remarkable way, my tenuous grip on life has freed me from feeling like I need to conform with the pressures of modern parenting. We’re going to live in the moment. My kids are going to skip some school so we can take a weekend trip. They’re going to have a miss a few birthday parties, and when we take our summer-long road trip, there will be no X Box, no Doc McStuffin, and no playdates. And with any luck, when they get older they won’t know a single Selena Gomez song, but Paul Simon’s “Hearts and Bones” might remind them of a sunrise, and they’ll think we took those trips for them.
Bad genes forced Jonathan Kile to give up a life as traveling salesman. Good genes make him a fine and — some would say handsome — writer. His first book, The Grandfather Clock is available on Amazon. The sequel, The Napoleon Bloom, will be out this Spring. For real! (editor's note: or so he says). He is boldly trying to figure out Instagram and blogging furiously at the soon to be famous Don't Make Me Turn This Van Around.