Our new life as freewheeling outdoorspeople began with a surprising amount of prep, two straight days of packing for a 22-hour test run. “Thass juss paht uhvit,” said Ronnie, a sixtysomething Cajun holding a snaggletooth poodle beneath the pines of Tyler State Park. Ronnie was fleeing a hurricane, which—as I watched my husband struggle to pop the pop-up of our trailer—seemed to be the only reasonable explanation for camping in a Texas summer.
A camper was something my husband and I had dreamed of when we were young and childless. We finally pulled the trigger during the pandemic, like tens of thousands of Americans. If we had to be home with two wild boys, the youngest recently walking, we might as well take home to the woods.
Turns out state parks are Squid Games for rugrats. It’s pure luck any come out alive. One morning I looked up in time to see my 18-month-old step out of the ashes of a fire pit and trip over a kindling ax. In the Hill Country, he waddled off a 3-foot drop, into a lake. I caught him by the back of his shirt collar, holding him over the water’s edge like Wile E. Coyote in Crocs. He left a piece of his front tooth in Arkansas. That is also where he fell into shallow water, soaking his only pair of sneakers. It was winter.
My husband has no patience for such immaturity. Forced into survivalism—that is, relying on a single Kroger haul and screenless parenting—he adopts a businesslike demeanor bent on efficiency. Imagine Kendall Roy wearing an Under Armour bucket hat. I ask my husband where he put the paper towels; without turning, he snaps in my direction then points to a plastic bin.
Our dog doesn’t even try to look like he’s having a good time. Bubs Barksdale stares at us with ears pushed back, shivering in the warm sunlight until we finally stick him in the trailer to curl up beneath the wobbly dining table. He is, after all, a Boston terrier, a canine now bred exclusively for the purpose of looking adorable in Super Bowl commercials.
Really, the only one living his best #campinglife is my 8-year-old. Born with the combustible nature of a space heater, he settles into a sort of spiritual zen while relieving himself alfresco and inspecting various animal droppings to determine their source. In Possum Kingdom, he asked me to post to Instagram a video of him gazing at the lake’s morning fog.
Me, I always intend to relax. I bring a stack of unread Sunday Times and a zero gravity chair. The newspapers inevitably become a fire starter before I’ve had a chance to sit down with them. And though I end these days exhausted, I can’t sleep. On our last campout, I was kept awake by the lingering scent of smoke and reached through the dark to find something to fit over my nose. And as I lay there at 2 am, muzzled by the cup of my bra, I wondered, Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?
That question made me think about a book publicist I once worked for named Sandi. Like most New Yorkers, Sandi lived life intensely. The way she smacked gum would make Sean Spicer quit cold turkey. One day, she was schooling me, a Texas expat raised on Christ and bacon, on Jewish fasting traditions. “Why do you do it?” I asked. She didn’t seem particularly religious. She slapped her hands on her desk with Meg Ryan enthusiasm and said, “I LOVE the challenge!”
The challenge, I realized that night. Camping itself wasn’t all that enjoyable, but, you know, some people run dogs in the Iditarod. Some people free solo cliff faces or surf 80-foot waves at Nazaré. I completed a 1.8-mile cacti-lined hiking trail with a 30-pound toddler.
There’s also the euphoria of returning to city life. For a brief moment, our East Dallas home feels like vacay. It’s all so easy. Within hours, plumbed-in appliances swallow up a Himalayan range of laundry and spit it out hot and fluffed, replacing campfire odors with the refreshing lab-formulated fragrance of “mountain rain.”
As we took turns in a steam shower after a grueling October outing, my husband told me he’d booked a waterfront site at Inks Lake in March. To which I said, “Is there nothing available sooner?”