I am not sure my family ever really understood what it means to properly camp. For a long time, I thought anything that involved spending the night in a tent and eating food from a cooler qualified as camping. Based on my formative camping experiences, that’s all I had to go on. Case(s) in point: When I was young, “camping” meant sleeping in a tent at my mom’s annual summer karate retreats. Karate was my mom’s thing for a good part of the ‘90s, when she turned 40 and likely needed a new way to burn off steam from the thankless job of raising two young kids. A women’s self-defense class at our city’s rec center was her gateway drug; within a couple years she had earned a third-degree black belt and was teaching her own classes. The style of karate she practiced was governed by a tight-knit local group of karate enthusiasts, and their big annual event was the “Family Camp-Out”—billed as a summertime karate extravaganza where teachers and students gathered at a different Michigan campground each year for three days of workshops and family-friendly fun. To my 10-year-old self, though, these weekends were awkward and boring: People in karate uniforms air-punching on the lawn during the day, and getting rowdy around a bonfire after dark. Which is why my earliest camping memory is of being startled awake by someone violently puking just inches away from me, my forehead protected from a waterfall of vomit by just a few millimeters of nylon.
My family’s camping trips to these karate retreats were a long string of small disasters. The “campgrounds” hosting the events were always devoid of anything that suggested real wilderness. There was no sign of a real body of water; instead, we were encouraged to swim in a slime-covered in-ground swimming pool. Food was not cooked over a campfire but in the deep fryer at a pathetic little concession stand. At one place, the women’s restrooms were just a giant, plywood-walled pit latrine with multiple toilet seats, left over from a rock concert in the ‘70s; the other karate moms joked about how “the squat and hover” was the newest karate move to master. (I deserved a black-belt in it by the end of the weekend.) One time, my dad decided to splurge and rent us a pull-behind camper for the weekend, maybe hoping we’d all be a little more comfortable. That was the year the campground was, essentially, a desert—just a massive field of dirt with no trees. On our last day there, with the sun still beating down out of a clear sky, I watched from a picnic bench as a sudden and inexplicable tornado of dust whipped up and then whizzed across the campground—mangling our trailer’s awning, bending its metal pole backwards, and popping off the sunroof like a bottle opener cracking open a beer. I still remember the look on my father’s face as the dust devil dissipated: You could see the math running through his head as he calculated the damage costs he’d have to pay the rental place. The camper year was the last time we all went to the karate retreats. After that, my mom went once more—alone. She stayed at a nearby B&B.
Karate was my mom’s thing for a good part of the ‘90s; within a couple years she had earned a third-degree black belt and was teaching her own classes. The style of karate she practiced was governed by a tight-knit local group of karate enthusiasts, and their big annual event was the “Family Camp-Out”—billed as a summertime karate extravaganza where teachers and students gathered at a different Michigan campground each year for three days of workshops and family-friendly fun. To my 10-year-old self, though, these weekends were awkward and boring.
The one good memory I have of camping as a kid is the time we camped near Northport, on the Leelanau Peninsula. Once again, this wasn’t camping for camping’s sake. As if my parents thought camping had to spring forth from some pre-organized activity, the trip was planned around a kids’ weekend-long science camp I’d been accepted into. I was too shy to camp alone with the other kids and counselors, so my whole family came. Which is sweet when you think about it, and the rustic campground was beautiful—the closest we had ever come to camping as other people understood it. But given our previous camping experiences, we were ill-prepared for things like spider-infested outhouses (where even the “squat and hover” can’t save you), droves of mosquitoes and blackflies, and hungry, determined wildlife. That weekend, I once again was awakened in our tent by a terrible sound—this time, of my mother screeching at my father about a foot away from my ear. “Richard! DO SOMETHING!” she cried, as an unseen pack of menacing-sounding animals rifled through the contents of our cooler. All the karate moves in the world couldn’t save her from the bears she believed to be just outside our tent, ready to eat us once they were done with my brother’s Handi-Snacks. As it turned out, it was just a family of racoons. To this day we all still tease my mom about it: white-knuckle gripping each other’s arms, feigning terror, shouting dramatically, “DO SOMETHING!”
My family’s camping misfortunes even followed me into the beginnings of my adult life. As a college student, I got really into music festivals and the whole “tent city” experience. Music festival camping was a whole different beast—one fed by music, dancing, dope and veggie burritos. But in many ways, it shared a lot of similarities with my karate camping experiences: poorly managed campground facilities, disorganized organizers, poop where it didn’t belong, and a general population of weirdos and late-night pukers. As a college freshman, I baked in the Tennessee heat for three days at the first-ever Bonnaroo, where festival organizers sorely underestimated the need for things like ice, drinking water and clean Porta Potties. My friends and I subsisted on peanut butter and crackers, napping under our van on an old Nintendo Power Pad because that was the only shady spot around. Then there was the time at a Phish festival when my friend Kyle was almost impaled by a tent pole sent flying through the side of the tent by a freak thunderstorm. We lived in damp clothes that weekend and slept half-upright in the car, since the tent now had a new, uncloseable entryway and our sleeping bags and pillows had been soaked through.
After that, I might’ve spent my whole life thinking of camping as just an exhausting, potentially traumatic way to spend several nights sleeping outside. But then in my late 20s, I met a guy who’d grown up with an entirely different camping background: one that involved fresh air, fresh water, watching sunrises, cooking meals over a fire. One summer we packed all our gear into a duffle bag, borrowed a tiny tent from a friend and flew to California, where we slept under the redwoods and drank cheap wine around the campfire, sometimes telling stories and sometimes just enjoying the silence. The following September we took the borrowed tent to Maine for a stay on Mt. Desert Island, where I’d once spent a week in a condo on a vacation with my family, who by then had long given up on tents. This time, though, my boyfriend and I were the last guests of the season at the island’s seaside campground, where we reveled in how delicious Spaghetti-O’s and grilled cheese sandwiches are when cooked on a little propane stove and eaten after a long day of hiking. And I don’t know if anything could beat the romance of lying side by side in a tent barely big enough for two people, falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean. We made plans to do the same on Lake Superior someday.
“Richard! DO SOMETHING!” she cried, as an unseen pack of menacing-sounding animals rifled through the contents of our cooler. All the karate moves in the world couldn’t save her from the bears she believed to be just outside our tent, ready to eat us once they were done with my brother’s Handi-Snacks.
Having gained some perspective on what camping could be, I eventually gained the confidence to initiate trips. So one year, I decided to treat my guy to a weekend at one of my favorite places in Michigan: Sturgeon Bay, near the tip of the mitt. By then, I’d been telling him for years about the miles of undisturbed beach, the perfect sunsets, and the fact that there was never anyone there. I had never camped there, but my visits had suggested it’d be the ideal spot for a secluded, quiet getaway. But when we pulled up to the ranger station at nearby Wilderness State Park, the park ranger gave us a look that said, “Good luck.” It was the weekend following July 4th, and both of the park’s massive campgrounds were filled nearly to capacity with RVs. We wedged our tent into one of the last remaining sites and tried to take a nap, which was interrupted by our neighbors yelling and cheering as they played that lawn game that looks like a pair of testicles being thrown at a fence (I learned later this is called “Ladder Toss.”) We walked around the campground, observing the bizarre circumstances: there were hoards of people, yet everyone seemed to pretend there was no one else around, as if there were invisible walls between each campsite.
To escape the scene, I took my boyfriend into town—which meant nearby Mackinaw City, the tourist trap to end all tourist traps. We had hoped for a nice dinner, but what we found were fudge shops and a Dippin’ Dots stand; the restaurants were either totally overcrowded or dubiously empty, and most advertised “Senior Menus” in their windows. Exhausted and starving by then, we backtracked 25 miles to find a table at Leg’s Inn, a funky Polish outpost on Lake Michigan where I’d eaten years prior. But that place was packed, too, full of vacationers that all looked tired—tired from the long weekend, tired of each other. The food wasn’t nearly as good as I’d remembered. By the time we got back to our campsite, it was late, dark, and the prevalent sound at the campground was not the crackle of campfires, but the hum of RV generators as people sat inside, watching TV. My boyfriend looked at me and said, “This sucks. Let’s get out of here.” Unlike the family experiences I’d grown up with, this guy knew when to quit. We packed up our tent by the glow of our car’s headlights and happily drove several hours to our comfy bed at home, relieved and laughing the whole way.
Once, a few years ago, I met a guy in Traverse City who was in the middle of a honeymoon camping trip with his new bride. He explained to me how his grandparents, Italian immigrants, couldn’t fathom why anyone would ever want to camp. “We didn’t come all the way to America to sleep in the woods, cook over a fire, and go unwashed for days,” they’d say to him. To them, camping was the insane act of intentionally turning one’s back on civilization. Apparently my mother—herself the daughter of an immigrant—had failed to inherit the immigrant sensibilities about camping, resulting in my parents dragging us through that handful of half-baked retreats and camping trips before packing up the tent for good. Trips after that always involved accommodations with running water, real beds, and at least a kitchenette.
But the time that’s passed has turned those calamity-filled camping trips into inside jokes; it has softened the edges of the bad parts and sweetened the memories. At least for my brother and me. Recently, for the first time in a long time, my mom, dad, brother and I were all together on a short family vacation up north. No camping trip, just the four of us at the family cottage. We were in the car when, out of nowhere, my brother started up a new thread in the meandering conversation: “This may sound crazy, but you know what I’d like to try again sometime? Camping.” There was a long silence, then my mother’s shocked, disbelieving reply: “Why on earth would you want to do that?”
Emily Bingham is co-founder of Found Michigan.