I’ve been reminiscing about my camping days as a kid. A list of my family vacations reads like a guidebook to the U.S. National Park system: Acadia, Yellowstone, Cape Hatteras, Mesa Verde, the Everglades, Valley Forge, Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, Isle Royale, Bryce Canyon, Craters of the Moon, Yosemite. Our family of four camped everywhere, either sprawled in a tent or wedged into our tiny, 8-by-15-foot aluminum trailer.
For spring break when I was a kid, we packed up the tent and headed to destinations closer to our Kentucky home: Daniel Boone National Forest, Mammoth Cave, Cumberland Gap. We’d search for wildflowers—jack-in-the-pulpet, lady’s slipper, Dutchman’s breeches, trillium and ghostly Indian pipe—that popped their heads through the soggy leaves each rainy, chilly spring.
My roots in those lush, mossy forests and rocky hills run deep: I was named for the clusters of pink laurel blossoms that light the forest in early spring—and for a pretty cascade called Laurel Falls in the Smoky Mountains.
Camping isn’t just about taking a vacation—it’s about connecting to nature, and I have to say that all those childhood camping trips taught me more about ecosystems, meteorology, botany, astronomy, geology and wild beauty than book learning.
As an adult, I don’t camp often, but I’m still amazed at how quickly I adapt to getting back to nature. In fact, my favorite trips lately tend to be places in which cell phones, TVs, the internet and even electricity don’t play a role whatsoever.
Hanging Around in Mexico
And, although spending the night on the ground in a sleeping bag has lost a great deal of charm, I’m still a sucker for outdoor beds. My current favorite? A hanging bed in a palapa—an open-sided, thatched-roof shelter in the Mayan tradition.
I’ve been lucky enough to discover Yelapa, a village on Mexico’s Pacific coast where it’s common to stay in a palapa in the jungle or overlooking the beach. I love climbing under the filmy web of mosquito netting that covers a platform with a comfy mattress.
The whole bed is suspended by ropes. Inside this swaying nest I can read by flashlight or just lie and listen to the night sounds of the jungle or strains of salsa music wafting from town.
It’s cozy and snuggly—but I’m constantly aware of nature, especially the scorpions, which are plentiful, poisonous and demand respect. Especially the cries of unknown predators far up the mountains. Or the sound of fruit bats nibbling the local berries.
Despite the somewhat unsettling factors of snoozing in nature, I sleep well, and all the unnecessary stuff in life peels away until I’m back to the essential me—the same me who at 2 years old got my photo taken with the laurel flowers.
Last spring, my brother, David, and I visited Kentucky for the first time in almost 30 years. We spent two nights in the Red River Gorge tenting at a campground we spent a lot of time in as children. Although now both of us live in the arid West, we quickly adapted to the East’s rainy but more temporate climate and its bounty of foliage.
David and I aren’t little kids anymore—and after two nights sleeping on the ground, I especially was happy to move on to a softer bed! Yet there’s nothing as welcoming as returning to the land of your youth and reliving camping memories from bygone decades.
I’d love to hear from others about the joys of outdoor dwelling.
Where are your favorite places to camp?
What gear do you take along and why?
What’s your best (or worst) memory from a camping trip?
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor
Brother David, much more the outdoorsman that I, cooked our camp meals at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
The laurel flowers we’re in bloom yet in early April, but their waxy leaves still welcomed me home.