What a day. Severe thunderstorms had come through the night before completely eliminating any trace of pollen from the air. The crisp 65 degree breeze was strong enough that you would notice it swirling through the surrounding pine tops, and if it hit you just right goose bumps would race down your arms. Before long though, the sun would emerge from behind the passing clouds and re-energize you. A beautiful day, but I couldn’t quite make up my mind if it was warm or cold. Ansley and Vivian didn’t care about the weather. They had already befriended the kids on the playground and Ansley was assigning them roles. Ansley, of course, was the “teacher” and directing the children, some nearly twice her age, to work in unison to lift Vivian onto the monkey bars. Just as I was about to intervene, my cell phone buzzed. I looked down at the text from Summer. “Beautiful trail” it said, with a picture of the rolling mountains, back-lit by the bright blue sky, gradually sloping down to the lake shoreline adjacent to the trail she was running on. As my eyes darted back to the playground, I was relieved to see that the girls had moved on to a new, somewhat less precarious, game of forming a human chain and pulling each other up the slide. Vivian, undaunted by the older kids and the steep climb, was the first to make her way to the top hand over hand. Perfect, I thought. Perfect conditions for an afternoon on the playground and a trail run. Also, as it turns out, perfect conditions for our first overnight trip with the new pop-up camper at Red Top Mountain State Park.
Red Top Mountain State Park comprises 2,000 wooded acres nestled along the southern shore of Lake Allatoona, just north of our home in Marietta, Georgia. The park is well known to Atlanta boaters for its proximity to the city and big water, and it’s a popular picnic spot. Red Top has a multitude of attractions: a nature center with a resident park Ranger, various lodges and picnic pavilions, a beach, put-put golf, fishing, and swimming. In addition to these standard state park features, Red Top is a trail runner’s and hiker’s paradise. It has dozens of miles of beautiful trails that meander through the pristine eastern pine forests and along the lake shore. The trails are well maintained and uncrowded, with the exception of the abundant whitetail deer, and despite the fact that they wind through rolling hills and ravines, they are designed to be relatively flat. Eventually the masses in Atlanta will catch on, but for now it’s the trail runners’ best kept secret. Most importantly to us, Red Top Mountain State Park has a nice campground. For these reasons, and because it’s only 45-minutes from our house, we decided to take our maiden voyage in the pop-up here.
I have been thinking about this first camping trip for a long time, years really. Some might call it scheming, I would call it dreaming. But in any event, I had a vision for exactly how the trip would go, largely based on my memories of pop-up camping as a young boy. We would take off in the car swaying in unison to the rhythmic beat of Ride Like the Wind, drive right up to our favorite camp spot overlooking the beautiful lake, eat great food, explore the woods, warm by the fire, roast s’mores, and generally relax. Maybe even have a glass of wine or two. And it unfolded basically just as I had imagined.
The ride up to the park was smooth, Ansley and Vivian giddy with excitement, making plans for all that they would do on their first camping trip. A short drive later, I checked in at the Ranger Station, picked up the park maps and collateral, and drove over to the campground.
We were all excited, eagerly peering out of the car window looking for an empty site, talking about the pros and cons of each, watching people setting up on sites that had just slipped through our fingers. Since we were showing up mid-morning on a beautiful Saturday at the tail end of the local schools’ spring break I figured the campground would be jammed, and it was, but we ended up with a beautiful, private, and wooded site just the same.
The girls jumped out and immediately started scrambling up the boulder adjacent to our site as Summer laid out the picnic lunch we had packed in the car, and I started setting up camp. Setup and lunch didn’t take long, and with our bellies full, it was time to explore.
The rest of the day was action packed. We drove over to the main lodge where the State Park was hosting “Pioneer Day.” We played corn hole, listened to some great bluegrass, watched a blacksmith forge an iron tool, then strolled around the lakeside trail adjacent to the main lodge. We also checked out the Red Top Mountain Nature Center. The Ranger position is currently open, so there was no formal Ranger talk, but there was a room full of little critters to observe and some activities for kids, which Ansley and Vivian enjoyed. Once back to camp I took the girls up to the playground while Summer went on a 7-mile trail run around the lake. It was a spectacular day.
Hamburgers, hot dogs, and Kraft mac & cheese for dinner – every kid’s dream. Then we built a fire for s’mores. I figured that one gallon of lighter fluid would be sufficient to start a fire with no kindling. As the flames roared 15-feet above us, I was sure I was right. We were scrambling to get the chairs and children, and everything else flammable away from the blaze when the fire receded and eventually went out. What a dunce! Now I had no kindling and no lighter fluid, and two little girls holding marshmallow sticks looking at me. Fortunately for me, a coworker of mine was also camping at Red Top. Unlike me, he had wood and kindling to spare, lighter fluid, and some common sense. 20 minutes later we had a fire blazing.
Ansley and Vivian loved their bed-time stories. We read the same books that we do most nights, but this time the words were flanked by a Georgia evening symphony, the chirps and hums composed by frogs and crickets, and the crackle of a campfire. The girls curled up in their bags and then drifted off to sleep while Summer and I had a glass of wine by the fire. Actually, just Ansley drifted off to sleep. Vivian was awake for several hours walking out of the camper to ask us what we were doing every five minutes. But it was relaxing just the same and made us laugh a little.
Sunday morning was fast and furious. Eggs, bacon, and yogurt for breakfast. Then Summer took the girls back to the playground as I broke down the camper and hooked up for our drive back to civilization – birthday parties and swim lessons in queue! We were gone by 10 am.
I mentioned previously that the trip unfolded just as I had envisioned. Well, that’s true, just not complete. There were some realities of the trip that never made their way into my vision, namely: all preparation and recovery, packing, set-up, cooking, cleaning, bathroom emergencies, skinned knees, camp maintenance, and tear-down. There is no doubt that I underestimated the amount of work that taking the family camping would be, a point that hit home at 11:00 pm on Friday night surrounded by half-filled Tupperware containers and camping supplies scattered about the floor of my garage. But that’s okay, this was a shakedown cruise, and the kids had a blast so it was worth the effort. I won’t bore you with the full after action review. It suffices to say that I learned a bunch of lessons that will make the next trip easier, and they will continue to get easier as I get more experienced and more organized.
I think my miscalculation on the amount of effort the trip would take was probably the result of my looking at the experience through the lens of a 10-year old boy and not a parent. This thought led me to identify one important lesson – one that will change the way I look at camping going forward. Some time ago I was talking to a friend about having kids. We were noting the rite of passage that many people go through when they become parents – the shift of focus from what benefits them to what benefits others, in this case, their kids. A lot of people prior to kids have anxiety about this. They think that in an infinite sea of child rearing responsibilities, the time and ability to focus on what truly makes them happy will be lost. But paradoxically, and by no accident, the opposite is true. The more we let go of ourselves and focus on the benefit of others, the more joyful we are for it, not the less. I think this is especially true with parenting. So my biggest takeaway is this: For me, these camping trips are not going to be like the ones I had as a 10-year old boy. I will have late nights, less sleep, more dishes, more cleaning, a lot more time untangling line than fishing. Yes, these experiences will be different and maybe more work, but they will be all the better for it.
Next stop: Rendezvous with the Kansas Kazmareks at Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky.