Mostly Happy Campers: the Highs and Lows of our First Camping Trip

To celebrate the first hint of Fall, we decided to spend a weekend in Shenandoah National Park with a couple of our friends from the city. We learned the value of firewood, packing for all temperatures, and fresh air. Here are the highlights.


Breaking Ground. After selecting campground number 22 on Loft Mountain as our temporary home, we set to work. (see: Can We Be Gay Here?) We were armed with the best of REI and supplies we collected from previous hiking excursions. Unlike our trekking experience in Peru, there would be no guides or crew to set up our tent and feed us. It was officially back to the basics. We managed to pitch our tent with only mild passive aggression and a new improvised kicking-of-the-stakes method to account for our missing mallet. We unloaded the rest of our belongings, unfolded IKEA patio chairs, and put the food in the bear-secured box. Our campsite was feeling more and more like home.

IMG_1905Where There’s Smoke... Hunter attempted to conquer one of man’s first great victories: FIRE. We were under the naïve impression that in the mountains, especially at a designated campground, there would be a bounty of firewood for the taking. This was not the case. With only a half bag of ready-lite charcoal coals and a few damp sticks barely sufficient for kindling, we attempted to compete with theneighboring bonfires. Finally, we managed to maintain a feeble fire and enough heat off the charcoals to begin slow-cooking our burgers (estimated cooking time: 4 to 5 hours).

Thanks to some divine benevolence, we received left-over firewood from our neighbor. We laid down a few pieces of actual firewood, poured on a gallon of lighter fluid, and felt the warmth of an actual fire. For the remainder of the night, we played a fun game of musical chairs to evade the blinding, painful smoke that seemed to follow us around the fire pit. But, the watery eyes were worth the view of stars overhead. 

Temperature Controls. Earlier that week, our nation’s leading meteorologists predicted the perfect temperatures for outdoor adventures: highs in the seventies, lows in the upper fifties. We packed accordingly. However, on our first night beneath the stars, the temperatures dipped to a cool 38 degrees. As we lay listening to our chattering teeth, all the winter items I failed to pack ran like a haunting list through my mind as we tried to keep warm. 

America the Beautiful. As the sun worked its way across the tent, we could hear people scurrying and smell bacon sizzling throughout the park. It was like waking up inside a Norman Rockwell painting. Families sat around campfires eating their breakfast and friends nursed their hangovers with fresh coffee. It was annoyingly wholesome. Hunter accomplished near boiling water for our French press, charcoal infused scrambled eggs, and delicious bacon.  What a way to start the day.

Service with a Smile. The camp store just down the road guarantees that even the novice camper will survive, and enjoy, their time on the mountain. The isles were covered with all the necessities: tents, food, beer. Due to last night’s sleepless night, we purchased a couple of pillows and sleeping bag mats to upgrade our sleeping arrangements. Shenandoah National Park is really like the Ritz of camping: a camp store, gift shop, showers, and a small café. Honestly, did we even camp?


The Dark Side of the Mountain. Our friends Marisa and Chad were scheduled to meet us around midday on Saturday. We cozied up by the fire after breakfast, waiting their arrival. The lack of cell service rendered communication and navigation impossible. On the way, they missed a turn and drove nearly two hours in the wrong direction on the opposite side of the mountain. But somehow, they found their way to Loft Mountain by midafternoon. Clearly, there are both pro’s and con’s to being unplugged. 

Clad in all plaid, the four of us embarked on a hike along the Appalachian Trail. It was the quintessential Fall hiking experience complete with picturesque views of the Shenandoah Valley on the scattered outlooks and the sound of the crunching leaves as we hiked along the trail. Later that day, we roasted hot dogs and s’mores by the glow of the fire in pure Americana fashion. There’s something to be said for good conversation and a deck of cards.

Ghosts, Goblins, and Ghouls. Oh My! As soon as night fell, Hunter pulled out a worn edition of Texas Ghost Stories, and we each took turns reading from its pages. During the reading, we heard a scream in the brush behind our campsite. Our best guess is that a fox or hawk killed a squealing rabbit, very Watership Down. Either way, it completely scared the four of us. We tried to dismiss our fears as irrational delusions fueled by our campfire stories, and resumed our evening of drinking and eating by the fire. But, each fallen leaf sent a panic through the camp. Later that night, we continued to hear animals walking around, even nudging our tents.  All four of us definitely had a few nightmares involving bears that night. 


Farewell, Nature. The next morning, we made coffee, paired with charcoaled pancakes and more bacon. As midday approached, we disassembled our tents and packed our belongings. Escaping the stress and smog of the city had sufficiently lifted our spirits. In the mountains, we could breathe freely and leave the stress of work or life at the park’s gates. For two days, we remembered what it was like to be self-sufficient and concurred human necessities: fire, food, water, and shelter. It was refreshing to return to the basics, even if only for a weekend.

– Kathryn & Hunter


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