Maiden Voyage – Red Top Mountain State Park – April 2015

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.

The girls on the boulders
The girls on the boulders
Our Site
Our Site

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.

Pioneer Day
Pioneer Day

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.

S'mores!
S’mores!

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.

Campfire Stories
Campfire Stories

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.

Prologue

Ansley and Vivian scampered up the boulders adjacent to our campsite at Red Top Mountain State Park.  I couldn’t make out exactly what they were discussing, but it had something to do with castle walls and princesses, or some such thing that only has a meaningful place in the limitless expanse of a little girl’s imagination.  Ansley raced right to the top then turned and extended her hand to Vivian.  Then the two of them stood on top of the boulder, momentarily satisfied with themselves for such a rapid ascent, before shimmying back down the other side and vanishing from sight.  That was me 30 years ago, I thought with a smile.

Childhood

Virtually all of my childhood entertainment took place in the woods.  Much of my early years were spent in the “back-forty” behind our house, which was really just a wooded ravine between two streets in the neighborhood.  There was more than enough to keep a young boy busy – salamanders and crayfish to catch, dams to build, trees to swing from, and forts to build.  Even as a teenager when school and sports occupied my time, most of my weekends were spent outside exploring.  The first weekend in March always took my dad and I up to the mountains for opening day of trout season, Sunday afternoons were spent picnicking and hiking at Dockery Lake, or if we were in Atlanta I could be found mountain biking on the trails at Murphy Chandler Park.

Beyond just taking day trips, my family went camping frequently.  In fact, most of our vacations were spent camping.  My parents started us off in a Volkswagen Vanagon (yes… hippies), then we moved on to tent camping, then to a pop-up tent trailer, with some backpacking thrown in along the way.  We spent dozens of summer weekends at Lake Lanier and FDR State Park.  Every Thanksgiving we would haul the pop-up camper to Fort Wilderness Campground at Disney World.  This was the best possible combination a child can imagine: camping and Disney!  There were some other really great adventures – a two-week camping trip though the White Mountains in New England and a backpacking trip with my brother in the Cohutta Wilderness before heading off to college.  But the most memorable experience by far was a camping trip I took in the summer of 1988.  This was no ordinary camping trip – it was a summer-long, 4,500 mile expedition across the United States.  The general route we took was heading west from Atlanta, stopping along the southern United States.  Once we got to New Mexico, we turned north and meandered our way along the continental divide through the Rocky Mountains.  After we arrived in Wyoming, where we had a family reunion in Yellowstone National Park, we pointed back at Atlanta and made our way across the Great Plains.  As a 10-year old boy I experienced as many adventures in one summer as most people do in their whole childhood, maybe more than some in their whole life.  I spun in a centrifuge at NASA Space Camp and herded goats on a west Texas ranch.  I saw the Milky Way painted from horizon to horizon on the black sky above Big Bend.  I went spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns, surfed the dunes of White Sands, and glassed for mountain goats on Pikes Peak.  I watched elk graze in the Hayden Valley and osprey scoop fish from the Snake River.  A nonstop summer of one epic adventure after the next – staring at the infinite blanket of stars above the high deserts, pulling trout from crystal clear ice-cold mountain streams, navigating though ancient cliff-side Indian dwellings, and running up mountain trails.  None of these experiences, though, can compare to seeing the Grand Teton Mountain Range for the first time.  The majesty of the Tetons, with her jagged snow-capped peaks towering 6,000 feet above Jenny Lake (already, by the way, situated at an elevation of 6,000 feet), made a lifelong impression on me.  To this day, it is my favorite place on earth.

Married Life

My passion for the outdoors continued into adulthood and young married life.  I spent a lot of time in “the field” while in the Army which is sort of like camping with a rifle, but you sleep in the mud and get yelled at a lot.  While at Fort Drum, Summer and I took our tent out into the Adirondacks several times with our little dog, the Mitzerella.  The most memorable trip we took in the Army was to the St. Regis Canoe Wilderness with our good friends, the Hubbards.  Sean Hubbard and I dragged a canoe full of beer several miles back into the woods while the girls hauled the camping equipment.  This is no exaggeration, the canoe was literally full of beer.  It probably weighed 500 lbs. Unfortunately, once we got way back into the wilderness, I injured my back chopping firewood.  There was no way I could drag the full canoe back out and no way Sean could do it on his own, so… Sean had to finish up with the firewood and I had to drink all the beer to lighten the load.  Summer and I also traveled out west to the Tetons and Yellowstone a few times.  Our first trip there was during summer “block leave” (Army lingo for vacation) between deployments in 2006.  Summer encouraged us to complete an aggressive 20-mile day-hike over Paintbrush Divide.  It’s one of our favorite memories.

Children of Our Own

Then came kids.  We decided to take a break from camping when Ansley and Vivian were very young, but kept up our passion for the outdoors.  We took the girls back out west to the Tetons and Yellowstone several times.  We also hiked throughout north Georgia and spent some time boating with my parents at West Point Lake.  We even did a couple of “camping” trips in my parents motor home with Ansley and her cousins.

With our kids, and maybe this is true of all kids (or maybe it’s true of all people), everything is just better outside.  Behavior instantaneously improves – no bickering and no meltdowns.  I think I might have a clue as to why.  Instead of being admonished to stop running, they are encouraged to explore.  The shrieks that would pierce your ears as they reverberate between walls instead softly echo into the woods, so you are not compelled to hush them.  The comatose state brought on by the mindless strobe of television is replaced with a thoughtful gaze into the warm flicker of a campfire.  It’s not just about a better temperament though.  The outdoor lifestyle has a host of benefits, especially when it comes to raising kids.  Outdoor life is active, encourages risk taking, demands responsibility, affords us the opportunity to admire wild animals in their natural setting, and inspires a respect for the environment.  When discussing child development, elementary school teachers often talk about “teachable moments.”  Being in the wilderness is a teachable existence.

But while fully embroiled in the East Cobb arms race for premium child activities: soccer games, swim lessons, gymnastics, recitals, birthday parties and on, all seemingly taking place on Saturdays and Sundays, how could I give Ansley and Vivian the kinds of experiences I had growing up, inspire in them a sense of adventure and a love of nature?  I settled pretty early on that camping was the answer and I figured a little pop-up RV was the right equipment for our family, but would we use it enough to justify the expense?

We shall see.  This spring we pulled the trigger and bought a little pop-up tent camper.  The Flagstaff 206LTD is a basic entry level model, no bells or whistles.  But it will give us some shelter from the weather and a comfortable place to sleep.  It will keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and provide the basic creature comforts that could mitigate an otherwise wrecked tent trip given an unforeseen rain shower.

As Mark Twain so aptly said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

So off we go.  First stop: Shakedown Cruise at Red Top Mountain State Park.

Maiden Voyage – Red Top Mountain State Park – April 2015