My family and I go camping every year. We have this old trailer (circa 1970) that is a "hi-low." In trailer-talk, that means you can crank it down for easy towing and crank it up once you reach your destination. Our trailer spends more time low than high, because every year it snaps its cables apart, resembling a Chinese New Year firecracker.
But we can't complain. We bought the thing for $800 five years ago. It does have all the amenities: a non-functioning toilet, cold and colder running water, an oven we're afraid to light and a 200-pound bunk bed that only a man in red tights and a cape can operate. And I almost forgot, it comfortably sleeps six sardines.
This year, we went to Evangola State Park for our usual 10-day vacation. Evangola is a really pretty park. It's clean and well-supervised. It's real family camping at its best. It's also the only campground that we dare travel to.
Evangola is only a half hour from our house, and there are no hills, so we're pretty sure the trailer will make it. I know if we put it under any strain, it's liable to blow its cables all over the highway, embarrassing us and putting everyone on the road in danger from flying camper parts.
So anyway, my husband, John, made our reservations, paid by credit card, acknowledged the "no refund" policy, and then the trailer promptly went "sproing!" in the driveway. That's OK. John simply has to thread 50 feet of cable through the rotting rust holes before I can pack it. No problem. We do it every year.
The kids help pack. My oldest daughter packs her makeup, my middle daughter packs her dress-up clothes and my 6-year-old son packs everything, including last year's Easter baskets.
I, on the other hand, am completely organized. First I run off a copy of my yearly camping list on the computer. Then I collect everything in the living room in a pile roughly the size of my car. Then I sit down, have a cup of tea and mutter, "I am not Superwoman. I cannot organize this family. Let's stay home."
At this moment, my son comes running out of his room with a duffel bag filled with party hats, Power Ranger toys and the family cat. "I'm packed, Mom!"
My middle daughter skips in with her stuff, sing-songing, "Andy's packing party hats. He's gonna get in trouble."
The eldest enters on cue, whining: "Why can't we go to Florida? Why do we have to camp? This is boring. Can I bring a friend? Do I have to sleep on the bunk? Andy never sleeps on the bunk."
This is when I make a mental note to leave for Alaska in about 12 years with no forwarding address.
Finally, we are packed and the trailer is laced up, loaded and hitched. Hitching is something poor John does alone. Alas, I am "hitching challenged." Other wives can stand behind the car waving with precise little movements -- left, right, just a smidgeon to the left again -- guiding their husband's trailer hitch deftly right under that little hood.
But for me, that hood moves about 3 feet every time the car gets near it. I wave frantically -- this way, no, that way, wait, no, this way again, until -- AARRGGHHHH! John's on the neighbor's lawn hopping up and down like Ricky Ricardo. It isn't a pretty sight.
Eventually we arrive at Evangola with no major mishap or loss of property. While John begins backing the camper up alone -- at his request -- I bribe the kids a dollar each if they won't bother him for an hour. It takes that long for him to set up the trailer, and for his blood pressure to return to normal.
Finally, our vacation can begin in earnest. Bike riding to the beach, hiking, outdoor crafts and campfires are all planned.
"Hey, wait a minute," I shriek as John slinks guiltily into the camper. "Who packed the black-and-white TV? And why is 'The Price Is Right' on? We're in the middle of the woods! Turn that thing off! Get out of that camper right now."
Everyone slumps out of the trailer, rolling their eyes and sighing, except for John. He knows I can't make him mind me. He's a grown-up.
"Fine!" I call to him as we march off on a "Pond Life" excursion. "Rot in front of the TV. See if I care!" He dutifully obliges by doing just that.
Later, my kids and I start our annual search for tinder and kindling for our campfires. Every year, these fires turn into a battle of wills.
I use the old Girl Scout method of positioning each layer of wood by size and thickness into a pyramid of perfection requiring just one match (and maybe a Dixie cup) to light. Truly a work of art to be admired, and a skill I will pass on to my children. I was the best campfire builder in Girl Scouts. "Yeah, yeah," moans my daughter, also a Girl Scout.
My husband's version of the perfect campfire is slightly different. First pile a mountain of wood in an indiscriminate mound. None of that sissy kindling -- just macho hunks of he-man wood. Then, on the way to the Pepsi machine, dump a can full of kerosene on the pile. Follow with one well-tossed match, and Blammo! Instant campfire. Never mind that dinner tastes like kerosene and there are no more trees on your side of the woods. It's part of the experience.
But finally, it all starts to come together as we walk down to the beach to watch the sun set into the lake. All around the campground, people are sitting with their kids, enjoying the campfires, the s'mores and the beautifully colored sky as it turns to indigo.
After the kids are finally tucked in for the night, things are peaceful at last. The silence is broken only by my daughters whispering, "Oh my gosh, Mom. A bug! Kill it!"
As John and I balance on the so-called full-size bed that used to be plywood in a previous life, we look at each other and realize that we left our air-conditioned home and king-size bed for this tuna can cooled by broken propeller fans.
And you know what? We wouldn't have it any other way.
Debbie Manzella has the enviable ability to make the ordinary seem noteworthy. Her last article for BUFFALO was a story on her daughter's pet reptile. She and her family live in Hamburg.