The place was swarming with excitement. Camping gear was being taken apart and being put back together again. Everybody seemed to know what was expected of them, more or less. The packing was a chore, but we didn’t mind, we were going on an adventure.
The family dog, Hector, knew exactly what was up. Even though he never got to go on our trips, he desperately wanted to. During our packing, Hector would sneak into the car and wedge himself under the seat and make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. He would stay silent and make himself as invisible as a white and black mutt could. Every time I passed by the car, my excitement was tempered by a little sadness. I wanted to tell the poor guy “It’s not going to work. We can see you.” When it came time to go we would have to drag him out of the car. If dogs had fingers, we would have been prying them off the door jamb, one at a time. It made all of us sad, very sad, but he was a dog, and dogs couldn’t go on three week trips, sometimes to other countries.
The main event that would signal yes, we are going, was the lowering of the completely home made pop up camper onto the roof of the stationwagon. This was a delicate task involving cables and winches. Everybody knew their stations. The camper, which was known as “The Box”, spent most of its time stored on the ceiling of the carport.
“The Box” was about six feet wide, eight feet long and two feet deep. It was made mostly out of wood and canvas with some metal and fiberglass cladding. When erected, it consisted of the main six by eight box portion, where mom and dad slept, wings on hinges that folded out on each side, making it much wider than the car, where Steve and Mark would sleep and a sideways double bunk, suspended from the ceiling where Chris and I would sleep. When up, it made the car underneath look a little like an afterthought.The whole thing was painted forest green. Keep in mind that this was built in the late 1950’s, before pop up campers came on the scene.
When all was finished, we would drag Hector out of the car one last time and take off with him running behind us until we could get up enough speed to get away. This was another sad moment, but he was a dog, or least that is what we kept telling ourselves. My grandmother, who lived on the adjoining property would look after him while we were gone. What he decided to do with himself in our absence was a mystery. We just hoped that he didn’t get into too much trouble. Every now and then, when we were home, we would have to come up with bail money for the dog pound. Luckily Hector was never charged with any crimes. He did seem to keep his nose clean while we were gone, or at least that is what he led us to believe.
Almost all of our adventures were wilderness related. There was no pre planning or itinerary. We just had a vague idea of what part of the country we were going to and a couple of ideas of what we might want to conquer when we got there. We almost never, with the rarest exception, stayed in a hotel. We were professional campers.
On very long drives, such as Alaska or Mexico, dad would put the back seat of the station wagon down so that a full sized mattress could fit. 3 or 4 of the 6 of us could then sleep as others took turns driving. The fit was so tight that you felt as if you might pop up in the air. My problem, being the youngest, was that I would sometimes wet the bed. While this was terribly embarrassing, I did notice that it bought me some extra space. I have found that one can find the bright side to almost any situation, if you look hard enough and can learn to ignore the ridicule.
Perhaps my favorite vacation was when we visited California and everywhere in between. I was about 12 years old. My eldest brother, in his early 20’s, had just gotten married and decided to bring his new wife Linda along. This may seem like an odd situation now, but it seemed pretty natural at the time. Now that same old six cylinder, stick shift family station wagon was so packed that we had to take a luggage trailer.
During the long drive, my brother Mark and I both had invisible dogs. I don’t remember their names anymore. We imagined them running along the countryside beside the car. Invisible dogs are very fast. Occasionally, my dad would have to stop the car so that we could let them in. Even invisible dogs get tired.
Every evening, well before dark, we would stop to camp. Campgrounds were more plentiful back in the 1970’s. What was even better was that campgrounds were truly just that and not parking lots for large RVs. On a rare occasion we just found some place that was out of the way enough to just stay and not be bothered.
I don’t remember ever having a family meeting or being taught but the setup and dinner usually went as an unspoken, well-oiled machine. We would set up The Box in no time flat with everyone knowing their stations. Then dad would break out the temperamental Coleman gas stove, add the fuel and get it going. Mom would cook meals that were as full and normal as anything that would be served at home. Dad would then wash the dishes while the kids would rinse, dry and put it all away. After that, we were free to do whatever we wanted.
At bed time, we would sometimes petition dad to tell a bedtime story. He would make them up while lying in the dark, probably thinking only one line ahead. Each night would be a continuation from the night before in a soap opera fashion. We would especially needle him to continue when last night’s episode was particularly good or a cliffhanger.
My favorite one started out as the life of two 2x4s next to each other in a wall that fell in love with each other. It was amazing the life that 2x4s could lead. It ended up being something of a sad Romeo and Juliet story that lasted for about a week.
On the first night of our California trip, we all asked for our good night story. Now keep in mind that most of us were relatively grown. The new wife, Linda, exclaimed “Oh groan”. Immediately to be shushed by a bunch of mostly adults saying “Sshh, they’re pretty good”. I’m not sure, but I think that she agreed.
I always, even to this day, get excited when the Rocky Mountains would start to show themselves as a blue hazy, but jagged outline on the horizon. The long purgatory of flat Kansas and Eastern Colorado was soon to be over. I love mountains. Not only are they beautiful, but they are an awesome playground. They taunt you to climb them. They want to test what you are capable of. I am all too eager to oblige them.
Before our trip, my parents had read the book “Cripple Creek Days”. It was a true story about a gold rush mining town in the rockies in the 1890’s. One of the main characters was a very well loved madam. One of the more successful miners was so in love that he left all of his money to see that her grave would be adorned with fresh flowers forever. We had to go to Cripple Creek to look into this.
The way to Cripple Creek was up this steep one and a half lane gravel mountain road. I’m pretty sure there was an easier way, but my dad wasn’t letting on. This was his adventure fun. The poor little in line six cylinder truckster didn’t have the power to make it up some of the steeper parts, so the family would have walk while dad would get a run at it, careening around the corners. While we were all pitching in to get done that what must be done, I got the strange sense that dad might have been enjoying it. All we needed was to have our pots and pans hanging and clanging on the outside and we could have been on the “move to Beverly, Hills that is”.
It took a while to find the Madam’s grave, but when we did, fresh flowers! Beautifully adorned. The love struck miner’s money had not yet run out! While at the cemetery, my dad taught me how to drive a stickshift at 12 years old. I don’t think that he foresaw the mistake he was making as I was picked up by the police driving the car around two years later. Perhaps a fake beard might have been wise.
While camping in Yosemite California, we came up with the idea that we should hike to, and then climb Half Dome. This is a pretty serious endeavor. While we were professional campers, we were not professional long haul hikers. We left for what turned into an all day and into the AM hike with almost nothing. The whole family except for mom and Mark, started from Glacier Point early in the morning. The new bride, Linda, was not going to be left behind. It was a beautiful hike along the tops of majestic waterfalls and tall pines. I was in heaven, though I might not have been completely aware of it at the time. Everything was so large, clear and bright.
The trail takes most of the day to circle around the backside of Half Dome until it reaches the bottom of the smooth granite monolith. There you start to ascend up an extremely steep, flat slab of granite. To make this possible, there are two steel cables that you can use as handrails to keep you from sliding back. The new bride, Linda Frei was afraid of heights but was determined to not be outdone or left out.
The top was truly magnificent. Our only failure was not to notice that we were running out of day. The long hike down the mountain to the valley floor was carved into cliffs at spots and went beside some majestic, tall waterfalls. Problem was, it was a long way and we did not have any lights. At one point in one of the trail sections that was carved into the cliff, a couple of well stocked hikers passed us going in the opposite direction and proclaimed that they hoped that we did not have any food on us. I was desperately wishing that we had. The reason they gave was that there was a bear following them due to the food they were carrying. My dad and I kept walking until we noticed in the near darkness that one of the boulders along the trail was moving. Not having any better ideas, we simply kept walking. The bear and us just quietly walked passed each other at an arm’s length. Neither of us had anything to say to each other. Apparently, bears noses are much keener than the best bloodhound. Luckily, I didn’t smell like food, or perhaps I was too skinny to be worth dealing with.
Down on the valley floor, my mom was starting to get very worried. Darkness had fallen and no family. A passing ranger that she talked to assured her that we would be spending the night up there. Nobody in their right mind would try to come down that trail in the dark.
I believe that one can find an upside to most situations. Even though we did not get to see the majestic waterfalls that the trail was climbing past, the sound of the thunder and the glints that you could barely make out in the moonlight let your imagination run wild.
We rolled into the campground after midnight. Now the problem was that we couldn’t find our campsite. Every time we stopped for more than a few seconds, Linda and I would fall asleep on the ground.
Yosemite is a magical place. It’s no wonder that John Muir was able to persuade President Teddy Roosevelt, during a joint camping trip in 1903, to declare this place and others like it national parks. John Muir believed that mankind is just one part of an interconnected natural world, not its master, and that god is revealed through nature.
There is much more to this trip and others that I plan to write about in the future.