Something’s not quite right. The rain fly hangs limp over the front door of the tent, ready for us to insert the poles to give it some structure. I look
Something’s not quite right.
The rain fly hangs limp over the front door of the tent, ready for us to insert the poles to give it some structure. I look down at the table in front of me, where not just two, but three sets of disassembled poles lie in a heap. There’s an extra one. Somewhere in the process of setting up the tent, we missed a step.
“Didn’t this happen last time?” I ask my mom, holding up the extra poles. Her face falls.
“Oh, no!” she says, picking up the fly to look at the tent underneath. “Those are supposed to go through the front of the tent.”
My mind flashes back to the last time we went camping together. That time, we realized our mistake before we staked down the fly, so we just took it off. But now, we’re so close to being finished. Mom wrestles with the tent poles, trying to get them in place without taking off the fly, but the angles aren’t working in our favor. I can tell she’s disappointed.
“I wanted everything to be perfect,” she says.
Oh well. A few inches of lost space inside the tent never hurt anyone. We let go of our perfectionism and tuck the extra poles out of sight. We have more important things to do, like sitting around the campfire, stargazing, and lounging in hammocks by the lake, admiring the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
• • •
I was 26 years old the first time my mom and I camped together. It was just two years ago, at Linville Falls, about 20 miles down the Blue Ridge Parkway from where we’ve pitched our tent today at Julian Price Campground. I imagine that most avid campers have childhood memories of setting up tents with their families deep in the woods, roasting marshmallows, telling scary stories, and snuggling together in sleeping bags while trying to guess the source of every mysterious sound outside.
We were not one of those families. When I was about 9 years old, my dad pitched a tent in the backyard, and he, my sister, and I crawled into sleeping bags for our first camping experience. Then we got cold. Somewhat defeated, my dad brought us inside, where my mom was waiting with hot chocolate. It was years before any of us camped again.
So it came as something of a surprise when my parents, who were planning a three-week road trip to New England about five years ago, bought a tent. And sleeping bags and pads. And cots. And a cookstove. And camping cookware. And rugs for inside the tent. And a nightstand. And battery-powered lamps and fans. And who knows what else? “I like some of the creature comforts,” Mom says with a shrug — that includes bathrooms and showers, of course.
When they stopped at a campground off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, Mom slept under the stars for the first time in 40 years. She was hooked. My dad, who spent 30 years in the military and has done enough “roughing it,” would be satisfied with maybe one or two trips a year. But that hasn’t stopped my mom from going once, twice, even three times a month when the weather is nice. She’ll invite me or friends from her neighborhood to join her (one neighbor had so much fun that she ended up buying her own equipment). And sometimes, when my dad isn’t interested, and I can’t get away from work, and her friends have other plans, she just goes by herself.
“Some of my neighbors think I’m crazy for camping at my age,” Mom says. She’s 63. “Not that I’m old, but I’m getting up there. I think people are afraid of what’s out in the wild. You hear bear stories or skunk stories — wild animal stories.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s not afraid. She has a few eerie stories about strange sounds in the night. But rustling leaves and weird footsteps don’t keep her inside. “You just need to be well prepared,” she says.
As we continue setting up camp, Mom is clearly prepared — and in charge. She has bins organized by their contents: cooking supplies, towels and rugs, fire-making implements, flashlights and lanterns with backup batteries. She moves around the campsite, hauling wood, hammering in stakes, hanging glow sticks on the tent so we can see if we have to get up in the middle of the night. She’s got the routine down pat. I carry a few bins and bags from the truck. Help set up the canopy over the picnic table. Then I wander to the edge of our campsite, to Price Lake, where the trees are perfectly spaced to hang a hammock. When I return to the tent, there’s already a fire crackling in the pit. It’s hard to believe that Mom never camped as a child.
My mom grew up in the New Jersey suburbs. Her dad, a dental lab technician, commuted an hour each way to New York City every day and got a week’s vacation every year, which was spent at the beach on Long Island — a far cry from wooded wilderness. By the time Mom graduated from high school in 1976, the farthest west she’d been was eastern Pennsylvania.
Looking for some adventure, she decided to attend Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “I was very introverted,” she says, “so it was my way of kind of pushing myself to be on my own and see new parts of the world.” She camped once, after making the 10-mile trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. “I had a great time; I don’t know why I didn’t tent-camp after that,” she says. “I don’t really have a reason for it. Maybe just because the people I hung out with weren’t into it.”
Over the firepit, smoke drifts lazily up through the branches of the trees, a light breeze rustling their leaves. There’s a slight chill in the mountain air as the sun starts to set. I scoot my chair a little closer to the fire. As we eat our dinner of chicken, rice, peppers, and pineapple that we cooked over the flames, I ask Mom why she decided to get into camping in her 50s. “I think what got me thinking about it was when you and your sister were in high school, and you’d go out camping with all your friends in Pisgah National Forest. I was kind of jealous of that adventure.”
• • •
In 1980, while living in New Jersey, my mom drove the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway in a van. “I stopped at every overlook,” she says. “I didn’t want to miss one beautiful view, and I was afraid that if I drove past, that might’ve been the most scenic view of all.”
She couldn’t have known then that, almost 20 years later, she would move to those same mountains with her husband and two kids. My childhood home near Brevard, where she and my dad still live, is just a short drive from the parkway. In her younger years, she had stopped and looked out over the same views that I grew up with. “I wanted to go somewhere where there were mountains and freshwater lakes and rivers,” she says. “I always knew that North Carolina was beautiful.”
I had always thought that I inherited my sense of adventure and my love of travel from my dad, whose work has taken him around the globe. My mom, meanwhile, has worked various jobs throughout her life — at an advertising agency, a casino, and a dentist’s office, among others — many of which allowed her to spend time at home with my sister and me. Hearing her talk about adventure, I suddenly see those jobs in a new light: She was always trying new things, learning different skills. She craves the excitement that comes with new experiences, just like I do. How brave she must have been to leave home at 18 and go live on the opposite side of the country when she’d never traveled more than a couple hundred miles. How strange it is that a woman I’ve known my entire life, I’ve only known for half of hers.
Mom spent 20 years of her adult life caring for my sister and me. Now that we’re on our own, she can do more of what she wants to do — she can be the one outside in a tent instead of making hot chocolate and watching from the kitchen window.
“I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot in life by not venturing out and doing things like camping,” she says. “I just feel like life is short, and it’s getting a whole lot shorter now that I’m in my 60s.”
• • •
It’s late now at Julian Price Campground, and we’re sitting in our folding chairs, gazing into the fire. My mom likes to use little color packets that turn the flames green and blue and purple, and I watch, mesmerized, as the flames lick the sides of the logs and the embers smolder like molten rock. “One time when I was camping by myself,” Mom says, “I watched the fire for four hours. I could spend hours in a hammock or hours in front of a fire, just chilling and checking out my surroundings or reading a book or exploring a new area.”
I’ve always known my mom to be friendly and talkative — she can turn any stranger into a friend within minutes. “For some people, camping is all about the camaraderie,” she says. “I love that, but I don’t mind being by myself. Growing up kind of introverted, even though I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood, I was kind of quiet, and I didn’t mind it. I could always find things to do.”
“What do you think about when you’re watching the fire?” I ask.
“At the end of my trip, I think about, ‘Where’s the next one?’ I’ve made a long list of campgrounds that I’d like to check out,” she says.
It’s not the answer that I was expecting, but it sounds just like what I would say.
“I love the outdoors, I love nature, and I want to get out and enjoy it before I’m too old to enjoy it,” she says. “I like the fresh air. I think I sleep better in the fresh air, but it’s got to be a quiet place. I don’t always have that kind of luck in the campgrounds.”
Which brings us, hours later, to 4 a.m. The man in the campsite next to ours is snoring. Long, loud, bear-growl snores. I flip over on my cot and see that my mom is wide awake.
“He’s been snoring all night,” she says. Mom’s a much lighter sleeper than I am, but I’m surprised that I hadn’t noticed the snoring before. Maybe all the croaking bullfrogs drowned it out. Either way, neither of us has slept much. And now I have to go to the bathroom.
“I’ll go with you,” Mom says. She tells me that she has to go, too, but I have a hunch that she just doesn’t want me to get attacked by a bear.
We walk the short distance to the bathrooms and back, and by that point, I’m as wide awake as she is.
“Let’s go down to the lake and look at the stars,” I suggest, and my mom follows me through our campsite. The sky, perfectly clear, is filled with twinkling stars, more than I ever see from my home in Greensboro, where light pollution obscures the view.
We stand silently, gazing up at the sky and down at the water, which glimmers with an almost perfect reflection of the stars. And I get it. I understand what draws my mom to the outdoors, why she craves being close to nature. Growing up in the mountains, I spent many a night lying in the grass, looking up. Seeing the stars over the lake, mountains rising in the distance, I feel a sort of longing, an ache in my heart that tells me that I’m home.
Mom was drawn to this place, the Blue Ridge Mountains, because she could feel it, too. The mountains, the stars, the wind in the trees. I glance over and see calm, peace, happiness on her face, and I can tell that she’s thinking the same thing that I am: This is perfect.
Camping: Ready to rough it? We talked to three outdoor experts to find out how to pick the perfect campsite, what supplies are on their must-have list, and their favorite places in the state to pitch a tent. Visit ourstate.com/osknowsbest.