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GROB: Camping isn’t what it used to be, and that’s good

By James Grob,

I’m taking a few days off next week.

It’s a family vacation, at a cabin in the woods in Minnesota. My parents, my wife, my sister, brother-in-law and nephews are all going to be there.

James Grob
James Grob

My daughters won’t be able to make it this year, distance and job requirements are keeping them away. I’ll miss them, but the Grob Trip into the wilderness will still be fun. We try to do something like that every other year.

We won’t be roughing it. The cabin is essentially a modern home, with all the modern conveniences. Satellite television, wi-fi, a full kitchen with all appliances, air-conditioning, a rec room with a ping-pong table and a movie room with a projection screen. Heck, it’s better than home. There will be all kinds of fun things to do, inside and out.

There will be fishing and playing outdoors, hikes through the woods, scenery, grilling meat, a campfire, horse-and-buggy rides, maybe some tubing, and tours of area wineries and breweries.

Camping has changed since the old days.

When I was a kid, back in the Dark Ages, my parents once got it into their heads that our family would enjoy becoming campers. They bought a little pop-up camper, I assume with some rare extra money that could have gone to a color television and video game console for their son who loved them, and dragged my little sister and me to campsites in godforsaken places all over the Midwest, almost every summer weekend.

I have mixed emotions about our family camping quests, and I’m certain one of the reasons for that was that it rained quite often.

And when I say “quite often,” I mean “always.”

It is not an exaggeration when I tell you that, the first summer we had the little pop-up camper, it rained every single time we went camping. It didn’t matter what the forecast was, it didn’t matter what the weather trend had been in the days leading up to the weekend — the minute we found a spot to camp, backed in, popped the camper up and started to build the campfire, the skies would rumble open and release torrents upon our heads.

This is the truth — once I overheard my parents discussing a “get-rich-quick” scheme. They were honestly considering scanning through newspapers — there was no internet to search then — to find stories of areas in North America that were suffering from drought, and offer up our services to those locales. For a reasonable fee, we would pull our camper to the drought-stricken spot, open it up, and within a few minutes the drought would end with a downpour.

That’s how certain rain was whenever we camped out.

This means we missed out on all the best parts of camping. There was no hiking in the woods, no swimming at the beach, no fishing in the stream. No telling stories or singing songs around the fire, or roasting hot dogs or marshmallows and turning them into s’mores. There wasn’t even charred meat cooked on a grill.

There were lots of card games, on the little table in the camper, me —about age 10 or 11 — versus my little sister — about age 6 or 7. While it’s true that a simple deck of playing cards was the original multi-purpose entertainment center, you can only push that premise so far before it gets annoying and tedious.

I’d let her win until I got tired of it, then I’d beat her and make her mad. When I made her mad, the games came to an end. All the while, raindrops echoed above our heads. The flat roof of the camper made light rain sound like hard rain — and hard rain sound like the alarm that let Noah know it was time to build the ark.

It wasn’t all bad. There were occasional breaks in the rainfall, when we could get outside and enjoy the wet wide world. I learned that trout like to bite just after a rainstorm, and I managed to occasionally catch some big ones with my dad.

Sometimes we’d head to the nearest little town and find something we could do indoors, like bowling or a movie. Because my parents felt bad for taking us out in a monsoon, they were quite generous when the time came to buy us some treats, snacks or gifts. When it was too rainy for Dad to grill meat, Mom could improvise and create some pretty tasty stuff on the little mini-kitchen stove in the camper.

Surrounded by the great outdoors, but sentenced to our little camper, we learned how to make our own fun. We learned how to make each other laugh.

That little camper is long gone now. I don’t know what happened to it, but hopefully it was burned to ashes. Thinking of my experiences with that camper, I’m reminded that my wife often talks about “love languages.” People have all different ways of expressing their love for others, she tells me. It’s from some books and articles she’s read.

For example, sometimes one’s preferred love language is giving and receiving gifts. Someone else’s love language might be work and service — you labor or create something for the people you love, or simply perform tasks like mowing the lawn, cleaning the house or cooking them food.

My wife tells me that she believes my love language is primarily verbal — I tend to prefer to give and receive kind words — spoken or written.

And sometimes it’s not words — sometimes it’s laughter. I often like to express my love by making others laugh, and I like people who can make me laugh.

For what it’s worth, I think I might have developed that love language in that awful pop-up, all those years ago. We were a family of four, cramped in a camper, trapped in the amber of the moment, and we had nothing to do but try to entertain ourselves and each other.

There was only a deck of cards and our wit, our words and our laughter. That’s it. That’s the only love language we had available.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being sentimental. If I could magically go back to that place and time for a while, I most certainly would not. I also wouldn’t wish those experiences on my most despised adversary. I still wish we’d have gotten a new color TV and video game console instead of a camper. Trust me, those trips were horrid.

But then again, I’m choosing to take a few days off next week, and choosing to get into a cabin with the rest of my family.

Granted, the cabin I’m headed to is much bigger and has far more modern luxuries than that old pop-up camper did.

But my family is a lot bigger now, too. I know full well it’s still going to be a little cramped in there when we’re all together.

So maybe there’s a part of me that wants to go back to those wet and wretched camping trips, when my family and I desperately found ways to laugh through the misery.

Because, you know, there’s always a chance of rain.