The Great (Barely) Outdoors

A backyard camping trip affords a change in perspective.

We were going to take a vacation this year, and then we didn’t.

This isn’t a complaint so much as an acknowledgment of fact — or if it is a complaint, it’s with the understanding that it’s a very small one. When tens of millions of people are out of work, when the country is in a moral crisis, when people are dying and their loved ones can’t even sit by their side to say goodbye, you’d have to be a real asshole to complain about not getting to hop on a plane somewhere for fun. That sort of thing can wait until next year, or the year after, or whenever it can seem like something less than a calculated risk just to step outside your house again. It is not important in the grand scheme of life right now. 

I’d been hoping to show my kids a little bit more of the world, though. 

Parenting during this slow-rolling crisis has been a real challenge. So much of the joy in raising young children is basking in their awe at new things in the world, and so many of the new things we’ve shown them have suddenly become unavailable or unwise. My almost-five-year old spent much of the spring growing angrier and more frustrated as he’d remember things we’d done before and could do again — Can we go to the library again? Can we go ice skating again? Can I go to gymnastics class again? Can we go to another baseball game? — only to have each idea rebuffed with the insufficient explanation of “I’m sorry… that’s closed right now.” 

A world full of wonder that had just begun to open up for these kids abruptly slammed its doors, and I’ve worried for months about how much they’ll carry the anger of these days in their memory.

I wanted to take them to a beach, to splash out in the surf and stare in wonder at the vast horizon. I wanted to take them to a city that has taller buildings than Louisville, Kentucky. I wanted to show them something they’ve never seen and revel in the magic of discovery through their new eyes like were able to do only a few short months ago.

I didn’t have to go nearly as far as I thought. 

I am not an outdoorsman by any stretch of the imagination — I last camped during Cub Scouts, and quit two weeks into being a Boy Scout — but I’d bought a tent last fall on discount at an overstock store. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have, and maybe we could pitch it in the yard, “when the weather was right”. (The great part about that phrase is that it buys time. Whether it’s cold, rain, heat, humidity, wind or whatever, there’s roughly two weeks a year in the Ohio Valley where the weather fits my aggressively-narrow definition of “right.”) This weekend, though, it did.

We set up the tent twenty feet from our backdoor, and the kids shuttled a small village of belongings to our remote camp. Stuffed animals. Books. Sleeping bags. Snacks. Blankets. I once took a three-week international trip where I packed less than these kids did to sleep on the lawn. They were going on an adventure, and who’s to say they wouldn’t need that lightsaber during the night? There’s no guarantees in the great outdoors. The Rise of Skywalker was all over the place, maybe some stormtroopers ended up lost in the suburbs.

We didn’t exactly rough it, is what I’m saying. My youthful camping experiences weren’t backcountry expeditions by any stretch of the imagination, but at least back then I never used a smartphone as a personal hotspot to stream Jake & The Neverland Pirates to a Chromebook. Times have changed, though, and I recognize the utility in buying twenty-six minutes of compliance even while “camping”. 

When twilight hit we huddled together to watch through the tent windows for fireflies. I read ghost stories, because somehow the kids knew this was an appropriate time to ask for them, and I was able to find ones that wouldn’t cause nightmares later. We ate snacks, listened to crickets, and stared up at the stars. They stayed up until it got pitch-dark, then fell asleep when I promised to keep a flashlight shining all night.

One thing that’s sure to happen as an adult camping out with kids is that eventually they will get to sleep and you will not.

I’m a light sleeper, and I lay awake most of the night hyper-aware of my surroundings. A distant neighbor talking on their patio until 11. The bonehead teen down the block pulling his loud truck out of the driveway at midnight. A dog barking at 1am. The chorus of crickets finally slowing at 2. A neighbor’s sprinklers turning on at 3. The crickets returning at 4. The dull, oceanic roar of the highway a mile away, ebbing and flowing all night. It was the slowest night I’d had in ages, and for once I didn’t spend it thinking about the pandemic, or my job security, or the million things that have troubled me recently. I just thought about the two little people sleeping next to me. 

Well before sunrise, my son awoke and dragged his sleeping bag next to mine. His eyes were wide with wonder, and while I implored him to keep quiet so as not to wake his sister, he had a lot to say. Do you hear the crickets?, he whispered excitedly. Do they stay up all night? Is that why we don’t hear them during the day? When will the sun come up? Can we sleep here again tomorrow? Can we live in the tent? When will (sister) wake up?

(A: Yes, yes, yes, in about an hour, we’ll see, your mom might like that, no one ever knows.)

I won’t be able to show them the beach or the big city or a ballgame this summer. Who knows when anything like that will be possible again, or when it’ll feel like it can even matter. If you’re parenting during these uncertain times, I’m sure that you’re struggling, too. There’s nothing to do and almost nowhere to go. School may not come back when we hope it does; activities are limited and there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the safety of the few that are available. 

Kids are resilient, though. As a parent it’s easy to forget that, hung up on our own wider view of the world, blinded by the things that we know we’re missing. What they needed from me wasn’t a big trip across the country. They just needed something to get excited about, even if it was twenty feet from our back door. They needed a new perspective.

They needed me to have a new perspective. For now, that can be enough.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook) 

PS: We spotted some wildlife.

“What the hell are you guys doing?”