A little van camping

A view of Stone Mountain Lake looking from the campground to the dam.

September 12, 2014

I vaguely remember when my grandparents traded in tents for a camper. It was a reasonably-sized trailer, nothing ostentatious like those RVs people buy these days with hot tubs and granite countertops. No, it was just a simple trailer. As far as I could tell, air conditioning was the most important upgrade during those hot Georgia summers. I think my grandmother enjoyed having somewhat of a real kitchen, although most food was still cooked and eaten outside if the weather conditions permitted.

By the way, why is it that food cooked and consumed outside tastes at least four times better than regular food? When camping, my favorite side dishes to go with a charcoal-grilled steak are a can of white potatoes and a can of green beans. The best way to prepare them is to mix them up, bring to a boil, and simmer (note that simmering on a camping stove generally means boiling the living hell out of it) for five minutes. I often heat up a cast-iron skillet and use it as a dinner plate; that way the meal stays nice and hot while eating. If I could capture that meal including the essence of being outdoors, I’d sell it for $300 a plate and people would pay it. Yes, canned potatoes and green beans when cooked outside are that good.

You’d think that the bathroom in the camping trailer would be a great upgrade, but frankly it was so small that it was difficult to use, even for a child. We showered at the bathhouse, and since we weren’t allowed to do anything but “numero uno” in the trailer, it didn’t get used all that much.

I remember that the fist night I spent in the trailer with my grandparents, I could not sleep for all of the snoring. Both my grandfather and grandmother snored something terrible (no wonder they had separate rooms), and one of them (I was never sure which one, but I suspected it was my grandfather), sounded like a wounded deer that had been shot through the lungs with an arrow or something. There would be a somewhat normal snoring sound on the inhale, but it would be followed by a god-awful wheezing / whistling / shrieking sound on the exhale.

Needless to say, the next night I set up my trusty boy scout A-frame tent. For those of you youngsters, tents weren’t always shaped like domes or other aerodynamic structures. They weren’t free-standing, nor were they waterproof. No, you had two little bitty poles to hold up each end and then had to tie off ropes to every tree, rock, and piece of firewood in the vicinity to keep the entre thing from collapsing on you in the middle of the night. It was like sleeping in a thin bright orange coffin. And you had to make sure to have a tarp under it and a tarp over it, or you would get soaked if the skies even looked like rain (a practice that I still follow today, if nothing else, to keep everything clean).

I must say, even with all of those disadvantages, some of the best nights I ever spent in a tent were in that little boy scout A-frame.

My unique approach at adding air conditioning allow me to remove it for winter, as well as see out of the window while driving. The only drawback is having to leave the door open.

Last night and today I find myself in something somewhat in between a camping trailer and my little A-frame tent. It is my first trip in my cargo van! I purchased this a few month ago because I thought that I might actually be living out of it (that idea faded fairly rapidly, which is probably just as well). But I finally got a chance to go ahead and try it out. I was having a hard time getting Roxy in and out of Trailer 2.0, and while it was fine for sleeping, I hadn’t been able to figure out a good way to work out of it. I figured that the van would be better on both counts. Roxy was with me in spirit, her collar hanging on the van’s rear-view, and I was definitely right about being able to work out of the van more easily than the trailer.

*****

Initially, I was going to trade my car in and buy a newer van, but I came across an old one for cheap and picked it up instead. Over the last couple of months I built a bed frame to hold a double-sized air mattress with storage underneath, built a mount for a window air conditioner unit in one of the back doors, and put up some insulation. After hiking last weekend, I really wanted to go camping, and Wednesday I realized that I had my chance. I would leave to camp Thursday night, would work the day out of the van Friday, and then return to Athens to hang out with my grandpa watch the Georgia football bulldogs (hopefully) defeat the South Carolina chickens (update: that didn’t happen).

And here I am. In a few minutes I will be leaving to meet my dad at his favorite Mexican eatery. It always makes us think of my Mom because she loved the food (and margaritas) there. It has been a family tradition for years. Funny enough, the campground here at Stone Mountain Park is even closer to the place than my parent’s house.

*****

I was very happy to be staying in a van a little while ago because we had a pretty wicked thunderstorm roll through. I was taking a bike ride around the campground after wrapping up work for the day, and heard some major rumblings not that far off in the distance. There was a group of three families who were apparently camping together with a slew of young children, and they were all scrambling around trying to set up tents and pop-up canopies before the rain gods sent their deluge after us. And deluge it did, along some with some lightening and thunder that shook the ground (and the van).

I love thunderstorms in general, and especially while camping. I’m not a masochist; there is just something about the raw power and energy of a thunderstorm that connects with that dark primal place that most of us have buried under the layers of (partial) civility. It’s the kind of natural energy that, if I were a wolf, would induce a long piercing howl (a note to the gods: please let me come back as a wolf!) It is a powerful reminder that no matter how advanced we think we have become, Nature is the supreme boss. Our “higher selves” that we (well, some) humans spend so much time thinking and worrying about is a mere visitor and is lost in the wild, the true nature of existence; it is our “lower” animal selves that seems to be really connected to this Earth.

Putting aside where our lower and higher selves are and what they are supposed to do, one thing that I’ve realized is that I need balance across them. And I am looking forward to more camping trips in this old van.

A view of Stone Mountain from the campground.

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