Camping in the olden days

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

We've been down to Lake West Point, camping at R. Shaefer Heard Park with about 25 friends, as we do twice a year.

I use the term loosely. What we used to do when the kids were little, that was camping. We had a pop-up trailer then, and a pup-tent they fought over. Or under.

We cooked on a Coleman stove and carried the pots and pans in a portable kitchen Dave made. When we picked a site – after an interminable debate about which was exactly right – the kids argued over whose turn it was to take the five-gallon jug to the nearest spigot for water. When we got tired of listening to them, we'd go ourselves and send them instead to find firewood.

When we had finally made camp and cooked dinner, we'd fished the water-baby out of the creek and got her dry and warm. And by the time Dave had nearly blown up the camper lighting the lantern, he was in no mood for a campfire and the kids were so whiny I just wanted to get them to bed.

Looking back, I can't for the life of me see why they thought camping was so much fun. There must have been something good in their memories because now one has backpacked all over Europe and the other actually made her living with the U.S. Forest Service. She thinks camping out to fight a forest fire is the most fun of all.

As for the old folks, we upgraded to a little motor home with propane-heated water, a microwave and a fridge with an ice compartment. I still have to check out every campsite in the park before making such an important commitment, but once we find that perfect secluded away-from-the-lights-and-playground-shady-sunny-wooded-waterfront-hillside-level site, we can be plugged in in a minute. Open a window, switch fridge to power and let’s take a walk.

The cost of gas has nearly put an end to our long-range travel plans. Received a Texas Wildlife magazine recently, and its vivid photographs reawakened our latent urge to return to Big Bend National Park. The Rio Grande, the high bluffs it winds through, the fresh green of the cottonwood trees – all beautiful, but we love it for the birds.

Nearly every migrating North American species of bird makes the flight across the Rio Grande, creating a concentration of species unlike any other. For birders, it is Nirvana.

We get about 15 miles to a gallon of gas with our motor home, so a trip to Texas is just too much. Then Mary wrote suggesting she and Rainer come home from Germany this year and we could make a camping trip up the east coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Not likely. In the first place, the journey exceeds 1,500 miles.

One way.

I guess she wouldn’t take kindly my suggestion to camp in Alabama. Alabama knows how to do a state park, and is remarkably nearby.

It’s been several years since we’ve RV-camped there, more likely as we are to “camp” in our boat out on the water. Wind Creek State Park at Lake Martin, like Lake Martin itself, is beautiful. Very fishing-oriented, but also the clearest water I think we’ve ever been on.

Another destination is Cheaha Mountain, at 2,407 feet, is the highest point in the state. We haven’t been there in quite a while, but remember it fondly. On the way we stopped at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. The place is easy to traverse either by foot or by car, but I could not help feeling a great sadness for the Creek Indians who wanted only to live as they had for centuries.

We walked across the broad empty field in the loop of the river where the Indians built a wood wall to protect their village. Warmed by a friendly sun, touched by a little breeze, I tried and tried to imagine death all around, and could not.

An outcropping of quartz-veined limestone near the campground is called Bald Rock, a stony place that brought back memories of Devil's Den at Gettysburg, where as children we played hide and seek. In these rocks with their splendid view of the sun-spangled valley, among boulders as big as cars, we found one supported by a pebble like a man's thumb.

Some of the gnarled trees are conjoined where they had rubbed together all their lives. We found others that have not joined, but grind against each other as the wind blows, monstrously scarred. What makes some bark-scars form welds, even between dissimilar species, while others do not?

To the driving rhythm of a Brandenburg Concerto we drove down into the valley, and then to DeSoto State Park, scaring up wild turkeys as we passed. I think DeSoto is my favorite, for its mossy wooded solitude, well-blazed trails and boulder-dotted forest. We made a side trip to see DeSoto Falls, a wondrous cascade plunging into a gorge as deep as any in the east.

In fact, we were not far from Little River Canyon, which claims to be the deepest this side of the Grand Canyon. Driving along its rocky rim, we had our only day of rain, light and steady. Even so, we could see the river roaring over the rocks below, mist billowing up from beneath our feet, returning water to the sky.

And Buck's Pocket, tucked into a rocky gorge in the mountains that form the southeast rim of Lake Guntersville. We were alone here, our night enlivened by a mixture of cries from the woods. The whimpering screech owl and the barred owl with his eight-hoot call – “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ah-ow-ow-OW-WOW” – were unmistakable.

Next morning, we drove to one of the park's overlooks. We flushed a red-tailed hawk and watched him from above as he slipped silently down the wind into the valley.

There must have been a thousand shades of green in the treetops, here and there a burnished bronze, but otherwise endless green. A rolling nubby carpet, it is, covering the valley, here smooth-sloping, there bunched and wrinkled along the shoulder of the mountain. From the depths of the forest echoed the calls of crows and jays; from a distant farm, the trumpeting of cattle.

Life is good.

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aliquando's picture
Submitted by aliquando on Sun, 05/18/2008 - 11:53pm.

Great Article Sallie! MY parents Tom and Judy used to take us tent camping every summer. I still do the same with my kids and they love it! It helped me in scouts and my son is currently a scout. Camping, if you really camp, has not changed much. B.H.

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