We completed our parks! YES! We did it, and it was awesome, amazing and a once in a lifetime adventure. It has taken me two months to figure out what this blog post should say. Many bloggers would use this as a chance to build a great list of their “Top Lessons Learned” or “10 Ways to Use Camping to Heal,” I wanted to be careful how I choose my words and be honest about our experience without trying to turn it into some clickable blog article. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against those types of articles, my post “Just a little patience – seven camping essentials” was a big hit, well big hit for this blog lol, it was even picked up by another website, which is kinda cool.
A little recap first, back in the Spring, I quit my job to stay home and raise my two daughters. The plan was to provide some stability in our lives while we battle to put the pieces of our life back together after my wife’s brother suddenly passed away. If you been following along from the beginning you would know that this blog is sometimes about being a stay at home Dad, sometimes about our battles with grief and depression and lastly about how going to all the Missouri State parks was going to heal us and put everything back together after a year of chaos.
We went to 53 Parks. camped 22 nights, stayed 12 nights in hotels, 30 playgrounds, hiked 16 miles, 38 friends & family joined us, and we traveled roughly 6,350 miles across the state of Missouri. We played on beaches, looked at stars, kayaked, splashed in puddles, skipped stones, attended educational programs, visited state historical sites, napped in hammocks and got lost countless times. We dodged thunderstorms, learned how to tow a travel trailer, reluctantly went on a cave tour, saw a heard of wild horses, visited a mini-grand canyon, had movie nights in the camper and even once managed to forget to make the camping reservation.
Along the way, we became great campfire cooks, and we also laughed, argued, cried, and ate too many s’mores. We learned how to live in the moment, set reasonable expectations and just learn how to be a better team. Remarkably, Shannon and I successfully backed that travel trailer into all those campsites without tearing each other to shreds.
We would have liked to have hiked double, even triple, the number of miles that we completed, but we learned that the girls are still young and the summer sun is hot. We pushed ourselves and pushed them as far as we could. As they get older, we will be excited to hike many more miles; We have never been more proud when our three-year-old was able to hike a 1 ½ mile trail on her own. We know hiking 16 miles is no small feat for two small children and hopefully, this will impact them in ways that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Part of our journey was also accepting that, and it was ok to just play in the air-conditioned camper when it was too hot outside. Adventures don’t always have to be big, and memories don’t have to be massive to have an impact.
I know that we didn’t find or feel the way we thought we would when we ended this journey, it was much more bittersweet than we thought. It was an ending that we wanted so badly but we were so sad for it to come once it arrived. We didn’t feel healed, and the clouds certainly didn’t part and bask us in some magical sunlight. There wasn’t a package at the end that said, “here is your happiness!”. We did, however, find so many other things: we found that we all love it when we are outside. We have the best time together. We love sharing our camping adventures. We accept that we live in a constant state of chaos. We don’t have to choose the easy path. I think we also found that what we thought was an “escape” from reality was indeed the reality we should have always been living in.
Everyone asks us “whats next?” It’s a silly question, which has a lot of pressure built into it. The sequel is rarely as good as the original, right? I think what is next is that we continue to camp and teach others about camping and figure out how to take that feeling and build it into our daily lives…if we are only happy while on adventures, then we were never happy. Camping/traveling is almost a false reality in many ways, and ultimately we have to translate that passion into our lives when we are just sitting at home. It is easy to feel better in a hammock with the breeze blowing but much harder when sitting at home on the couch.
I try not to give out advice; there is an entire internet full of people with well-intended but fragile advice, that is just waiting to fall apart. People are drawn to opinions these days as if they are fact. The one thing I will say that worked for us was setting a goal. I don’t think it had to be state parks adventure, but it was more about sticking together to do something. It focused us; it gave us a path out, it was an escape, and it was a lot of fun, and I think it has defined us.
Over the next ten days, I am going to reveal our favorite ten parks in no particular order on Instagram. I will post the final list here once we have listed them all. If parks are your thing and you are looking for a milestone to help you out of whatever you are stuck in, try the list. If you want someone to come along, we will go, and happy to share our love of camping with you.
Bonus Track: Every Little Thing is going to be alright
From the beginning, I have named every post after an 80’s song. If you know me well you know that I am a major 80’s fan and it probably wasn’t hard to figure out. By no means is this blog over but I wanted to cap off this playlist with a bonus track.
Three Little Birds was playing when we were in Jamaica this summer, and it has been stuck in my head for a while. I don’t know that we found what we were looking for but I do know what I discovered – there has never been a more accurate phrase than what Bob Marley sang…”Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing is going to be all right,” He was singing this to his three girls, and while I indeed don’t sing, 52 parks of therapy and some proper old fashion counseling have taught me that my three little birds are going to be alight.
To tie all this back to the original post, Shannon will always be working through her grief, but I think we all understand our new world and the storm around the island has cleared up a bit. Visitors have returned to our island and the water is much calmer. Still, though, the reef around the island is still treacherous, navigating the waters is unpredictable and challenging, but we now have a better boat.
I need to catch up on our posts, I am behind but will spare you with the excuses and just get to it. We finished up our park adventure, and over the next few blog posts, I will be recapping some of the final highlights. One of my favorite moments from our last weekend trip (and maybe even the entire summer) was our trip to Prairie State Park. The park has a large heard of Bison that roam the park, and technically they are called Bison and not Buffalo, but that is a whole different topic. From the beginning, I wanted to check this park out. If we were going to name this park like a Friends episode, it would be titled, “The one with the Bison.” Every time we set out to visit a park, I asked Shannon is this the one with the Bison? “Nooooo, Todd, that is not until the very end.” Finally, this time when I asked she said, “Yes!”
We set off for a long weekend to go to four parks and end at Bennett Spring State Park. My family has gone to Bennett Springs ever since I was born and we go every Fall at this time, this had been the final destination plan since the beginning. I would like to say we were not rushing through the last few parks, but we knew we were on a timeline to meet my family at Bennett Springs. We had winterized our camper at this point and decided to stay in a hotel this weekend since we had quite a distance to drive each day. Our original plan was to go to Grand Gulf and then go to Prairie State Park, but since we were chasing daylight, I wanted to make sure we had time to see the Bison at the park that I had spent all Summer dreaming about. We opted to get a hotel room so we could instead get to the park first thing in the morning.
In the morning we got up early, you know I was motived, cause that never happens with us. We drove several hours to the park, and saying it is beautiful does not do it justice. It’s close to four thousand acres of protected prairie land, the most extensive prairie left in the state and the only place in the Missouri where there is wild Bison. There is such a contrast to the majority of the parks in the Missouri, while they are all beautiful it was great to see something that wasn’t your typical tree covered Ozark mountains vibe. This park was so different, rolling small hills and wild grasses as far as you can see. It really took me back to learning about the Great Plains in elementary school, for me it was breathtaking. When you cross the gate into the park, you drive over a cattle guard grate that keeps the Bison from leaving, and there are also significant warning signs about the Bison. I am like seriously excited at this point!!!
Bison are my favorite animal, but it’s much more than that, it’s almost spiritual for me. When my Grandfather died when I was off at college, everyone was dividing up their possessions, all I wanted was a little bronze Bison figurine that sat on a shelf in my grandparents living room. From time to time they let me take it off the shelf and play with it, at some point a leg had broken off of it but I don’t remember how that happened. It was a forgettable item for most, but for me, it was precious gold, a link to my childhood, a link to my grandparents that meant so much to me. At first, when I asked my parents to get it for me, no one could find it. Eventually, they found it, and it has been my most prized possession besides my wedding ring. When I was in college, I discovered that I had a pretty severe case of anxiety which had been affecting me in many aspects of my life, but specifically, it had been causing a significant impact to my grades. That little statue became a safety net for me. It went with me to every test, on airplanes, job interviews, and anywhere that I need some comfort. Eventually I had the three-legged Bison tattooed on my thigh, so I no longer had to carry it with me everywhere.
I have only seen Bison in person a few times and beside them running around at Dixie Stampede I have never seen them up close. Here I am in a park that they are just roaming, how were we going to find a herd of Bison in a four thousand acre park? It quickly sets in that maybe we won’t be able to find them? We weren’t equipped or on a timeline that was going to let us hike far to see them. Our only idea was that we go to the Ranger Station and ask where they typically are this time of day. We had arrived at the park station before they usually are open, but they had a homeschool activity that day and opened a bit early. I walked into the facility, and apparently, the Bison are the main attraction, there was a prairie diorama with a life-size Bison in it, children’s Bison artwork was all over the place. I asked the man behind the desktop where was the best place to see them…his response, “Well this is the one week a year when the bison are penned up for medical check-ups.” I am glad no one was recording my face. In the bigger universe, not seeing the bison doesn’t matter, but I was still very disappointed. I went back to the car. I have seen a lot, been to a lot of cool places, and this should not have been built up so much in my mind, but it was. I mean I was DISAPPOINTED, like tears in the eyes. Shannon goes in, to fact-check my story, or maybe she just went to the restroom…not sure, but she came back with the same story.
Fancy at this point was all jazzed to see these animals that we had been talking about, so I took her out of the car and into the building to walk through the education exhibits. There was a display of other animals in the park, and one of them was a Lemming…”Daddy, what is this?”…Me: “It’s the only animal we are going to see in this park today so take a good look at it,” in my spoiled, disappointed, first world problems tone. What happens next was amazing! That man behind the desk, Dana, said: “Sir, if you’re interested, I could take you back to where the Bison are so you could see them?” Kindness folks, this is it. Dana got into his car, and we followed him down a road that had a sign with “Authorized Vehicles Only.” Little did Dana know that one of Shannon’s little dreams is to see what’s down those “Authorized Vehicles Only” paths that dot all the state parks. Dana took us back to where there was roughly 25 Bison in a pen. We got to stand up pretty close them. Dana told us all about how the Prairie is the star of the show, and the Bison are a means to manage it, which for me was such a cool way to look at it. He shared so much about how they manage the heard and how that includes auctioning off the 25 animals that were in the pen and that this will help the rest of the heard thrive. I couldn’t help but hear Elton John singing the “Circle of Life” in the back of my mind. Dana was such a kind soul and undoubtedly loved his job, and the land he was protecting. The Missouri State Park system has the lowest paid park employees in the country and to hear this guy speak with passion and excitement about the park and the Bison was such an AMAZING moment. Of course, the girls we more curious about the heard of Cows that were on the farmland next to us. We are looking forward to going back to Prairie State Park and camping with roaming Bison next summer. Dana gave me so much that day besides just kindness; a brief spiritual moment with my grandparents, a much-needed attitude adjustment, and a family moment that none of us will ever forget.
I often get asked what it’s like being a stay-at-home parent. Many of those that ask, want to say “what is it like being a stay-at-home dad?” Somehow this experience is supposed to be different for me then it is for a woman, it’s not. I am just a parent that stays at home with his kids. I have zero hang-ups about it, well zero major ones. Since their birth, I have been hyper-aware that they are only children once and that like the rest of life it goes way too fast. I have talked before about how children change me in ways I didn’t expect, but the biggest difference for me is that I just want to be with them. The highs, the lows and everything in between. I would much rather be sitting in a camper reading them a book and enjoy the fleeting moments of life than drinking beer out by the fire. Doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy both but hands down without question, I would rather spend the next few years enjoying whatever the moment is with them. That doesn’t mean I am willing to give up who I am, I still enjoy some free time, and I make sure that my kids aren’t my entire bubble. In many ways being a stay-at-home dad is very much like having a regular job, the pay isn’t the same, but that’s not the point. Here are five ways I think being an At-home parent is the same as working
Work hours – I used to work for this large company where 40 hours a week was just the minimum of hours you would work, and it was often closer to 50 hours…easily. When your job is reasoning your children, there is no off; you work from when they get up to when you go to bed, the work week bleeds into the weekend, and it quickly can become a bit of a groundhog day. I legitimately sometimes don’t know what day of the week it is. I love it and would not trade it but some days, I miss the silence of my commute home!
Demanding coworkers – I worked with some real characters before but can you imagine you coworker barging into the bathroom with you or calling you into the bathroom to look at their latest “release.” We argue about timelines and where to have lunch. There is no booking system for the TV in the conference room and just like my career before no one lets you get past the first slide of a presentation.
Boss expectations – This could be a whole blog post in its self, but for the sake of work-life balance with the boss lady I will keep it short. My boss wants the house run like her father ran it when she was growing up. Things need to be a specific way. Just like having a real boss, expectations and perception can be tricky for everyone to navigate. A simple example, if you wait to file your paperwork at the end of the day and the boss sees stacks of paper on the desk all day they could assume you’re are sloppy. They may not realize that his part of your process and is why you can get so much done throughout the day. It may be easy to pick up the files at the end of the day instead of throughout. OK, this isn’t about files it’s about dishes. I would rather do them once than have to worry about them all day. BOSSES!
Too many projects – just like a “real job” we have too many projects, I am not sure how we both survived working before. I have a project plan and to do list that would rival any I have seen at my previous employers. Similar to that company we are usually over budget and running late!
Buzzwords -Align, Laser focused, boiled the ocean, move big rocks, whatever your favorite workplace buzzword there is are plenty of ones I now use. Not that these are unique to being an at-home parent, but the volume of usage goes up exponentially once you’re with your kids 24/7. Potty, screen time, time out, lovey, boo boo, “use kind words,” “keep your hands to yourself,” “freeze,” “don’t eat that” “keep your hand out of your butt and “not for play” are just a few of my favorites.
Clear job description – You start a job and think it’s one thing and then it morphs into something else. I mostly took the job of being a glorified manny for my children. Shannon and I have always shared the housework (well the ones that we do, we do have someone mow the grass and someone clean the house twice a month…don’t hate! Or judge! But as time has gone on I have taken on more; managing the family calendar, laundry, house cleaning, home maintenance, doctors appointments, financial management, grocery shopping and pretty much anything else. That’s not to say I do all of it, cause I don’t at all. Shannon still does a lot, but my role has expanded and without me always knowing that it should. My job is to support the family and Shannon job is to bring home the bacon, so this isn’t a complaint about doing the work, it more about how the shifting nature of expectations can cause conflict. Thankfully we have navigated this relatively well but checking egos and changing expectations can be/is difficult in the workforce and at home.
I have had some ups and downs since I last posted. This at-home gig is challenging, and I find that it’s very similar to working a “real job,” for me the hardest part is that I feel like my life is in limbo, I am home with my kids but for how long? And what after that? Our original plan was to take it year by year, and that’s I still think is a good idea but it’s hard to settle into this job fully when you are not exactly sure how long I will be sitting at this desk.
I’m currently sitting in THE most beautiful place I’ve ever been. It’s the EXACT same veranda where JFK wrote his inaugural speech in January 1961…Cottage #25 at the prestigious Round Hill in Hanover, Jamaica. It is a complete understatement to say it is exquisite. We have an uninterrupted view of the ocean, hills and mountains so green in the distance, beautifully crafted furniture, a gentle Caribbean breeze, lush plant life, private pool, and two of the sweetest housekeepers you can imagine (that even made us breakfast this morning)! Joy and Verona haven’t the slightest idea of what’s been rumbling in my mind today, but their sense of calm and serenity washes over me, and I am thankful for the conversations I’ve had with them.
We have been here for just over a day. We arrived yesterday, July 31st, with amazement in our eyes and gratitude in our hearts. We had a double whammy – few are lucky to experience this luxury (especially as a work incentive trip) and even fewer on their birthday!! Todd turned 38 the same day as our arrival! My spirits and energy were really high yesterday! We had a fantastic day exploring the property, lounging in our pool, and rocking in the rattan chairs on our veranda. As the sun set, we geared up for a spectacular evening of dinner and entertainment on the Hanover Terrace. We sipped on champagne, swapped stories with new friends, and let ourselves drift away into the night. It was a day that I will cherish forever. I felt so honored and so proud to be in great company at such a magnificent resort.
Today, August 1st brings a new myriad of emotions. The anticipation and anxiety over this day had me wavering on even attending this trip for several months. Today marks the one year anniversary of losing my beloved brother Dion. It still seems surreal. I miss his antics, his laugh, his jokes, his mannerisms, his dares and bets, his ability to sift through BS, his outside of the box thinking, his refusal to follow the path of least resistance. In short, I miss everything about him.
Over the last year, I have been on a complete roller coaster. It’s quite ironic that I’m on an awards trip for the top 12 sales associates when, from my perspective, I had so little control over myself this past year. The ups, the downs, the anger, the depression, the guilt, resentment, desperation and the overwhelming feeling that I was falling apart almost every day. Often, I could feel the overwhelm building up and knew it would come crashing down in some form of an angry tantrum or wild crying spell. I can barely even recall the past year – much less the details on how I landed myself near the top.
I’ve lost complete motivation over my health and wellness. I haven’t weighed myself, but I’m sure I’m near the same weight I was when I was nine months pregnant. I could probably count the times I’ve worked out on my fingers and toes. I’ve started goal trackers – and quit them. I’ve started a mindfulness practice – and quit it. I started a new work out program (two actually) – and quit those as well. Yoga? Started and quit. Morning Walks? Started and quit. You can see the trend.
And I’ve pretty much relinquished all homemaking duties as well. Todd does most of the cleaning, shopping, and cooking. He manages all of our finances – I don’t even know when I get paid or when the house payment is due. It’s safe to say I’ve been a functioning zombie the last year. My apologies go to those who may have felt slighted or lost in the shuffle. None of it has been intentional.
Which brings me to my next topic – intentionality. If you’ve read a prior blog post or two, you know that we’ve made some major changes to our lives the last several months. To allow us to live more intentionally, Todd quit his job and now stays at home with our children. We bought a travel trailer and are on a quest to visit all 56 Missouri State Parks this year. We’ve purged piles and piles of unwanted or unnecessary items from our home. ALL of this has been a direct result of my brother’s untimely death. Somehow, on this elusive island my husband so perfectly described, we have found a few shiny rocks – rocks that had been there before the volcano erupted, but perhaps needed to be searched for and showered with love and attention.
So many individuals live intentionally every single day. Those who have done the hard work of listening to their authentic selves, really digging deep, and have truly defined their values. I once heard Ryan Nicodemus (of The Minimalists Podcast) talk about how he used to say family and relationships were so important to him, yet his mother lived a mere 30 minutes away, and yet he saw her only a few times of the year. Were his actions matching his words? Are mine?? How can I be living intentionally if I can barely recall the entire past year? How can I be putting family first if I’ve worked more hours than ever before? How can I expect my father to adopt a wellness regimen if I’m not willing to adopt one for myself? How can I honor my brother by creating the life we want to live when it often feels like we are living the life created for us?
As I sat down to write this, I was filled with angst and tears. A sort of somberness filled the air. Todd even retired to the bedroom to give me some time alone. But this alone time has been partly therapeutic this evening. The time to sit with my feelings, try to process them, and then attempt to let them go. For now, at least, I have a renewed vision of purpose and a mind that wants to continue on this journey – not only in honor of but out of honor for, my brother.
I pledge this to you Dion, wherever you are: I will wake up each day and venture down the most authentically “us” path. I will search high and low for what ignites the passion in me. I will allow my children to become who THEY want to be and not force them down the path of least resistance. I will continually check in with myself to make sure I haven’t gotten pushed off or veered from the path that makes us feel whole. In your short 27 years, you exemplified living authentically, and it hasn’t been until the last year that I’ve come to realize just how difficult that truly is. You inspire me every single day. With all my love,
It’s coming up on a year since we lost my brother-n-law, and our families’ world has changed so much since our return from Hawaii, it’s hard to even think about what the world was like before that. By this time last year, we had already welcomed a baby into the world and helped my father-n-law through the recovery of his stroke, which happened to be the same day the baby was born. We never saw the loss that was about to strike coming. We were blindsided, without warnings.
Depression and grief are as much apart of our life a year later as it was when he passed a way. I previously have used an analogy about being caught in an ocean wave, but a fairer current description is that we are on a scorched island, like a volcano erupted and burned everything. The hardened lava covered ground, the burned vegetation, and the sky is blocked out by the polluted air. The emergency crews that came to help have largely moved on. Some of the friends that visited our island frequently return even though the island isn’t always the happiest place. Some still circle the island not knowing if it’s safe to return.
We talk about the map to grief, not only do most grievers not have the map, friends and family usually don’t either. What makes it even more complicated is that each person’s map is different. It is an impossible matrix to solve. Not every person handles grief the same way every time and the map some times changes along the way. I have struggled with understanding Shannons map, but I wake up every day trying to figure it out.
Don’t get me wrong we have managed to piece together a new kind of happiness. Sometimes it is genuine and real and other days it is fake enough to get us through the day. I don’t want my children to grow up under a cloud of darkness, so we shelter them as much as possible. Our oldest is starting to ask more questions about her Uncle, and so far we have just danced around the topic, at some point we owe it to her and to even him to explain where he went. It’s hard to explain death to an adult let alone a three-year-old…when Shannon and I think the time is right, we will explain to them the best we can.
Eventually, I think the skies will start to clear up, and the ground will soften. One blade of grass will spring up like the grass that grows in a sidewalk crack, and hopefully, that grass will spread, and eventually, the flowers will return, the trees will come back, and the sky will return blue. Sure there will be rough days with rough waves, but the sunshine will touch most of the island on most days. We live day to day, more like hour to hour sometimes, we don’t always know the mood. Will the tide be too high to bear or will the low tide show us parts of the island we haven’t ventured to in a while?
Depression can make you so focused on not forgetting that you often forgot to remember. My experience with grief is that it feels like if you don’t focus every mental moment on those that have passed, you may not remember the finer points. How they smelled, how they laughed and every other detail that is comforting when you just miss someone so much that it hurts to just even breath. Live goes on though, they say, and it does, you can’t pause it or stop it. You can’t go backward or predict the future. There are no re-dos or do-overs. Eventually, I think you come to a balance of finding a way of remembering that provides comfort with out the pain that trying not to forget brings. That’s my perspective, and as I said, everyone’s map is different. As a family, we aren’t there yet.
Some days I just stare at the metaphoric ground and wonder when is that blade of grass going to spout. When is my wife going to be back to who I married? Then I remind myself that life is a journey, none of us are who we were yesterday, and I don’t expect her to be anyone other than who she is today. We have more good days than bad now, and there are days I think she just puts on a good face but keeps trying to clean up our island, repair what we can, build new bridges and venture out…eventually that hard rock will be fertile soil. Depression can fool you into thinking there is comfort in the darkness and that stark, lonely and barren island is the best place to live. We have other plans though. Eventually, enough light will shine through, and our island will change.
I am so thankful for those that continue to support our journey, they listen to our stories, wipe our tears and are merely present. We have missed phone calls/texts, forgot to send gifts, skipped invites and numerous other things that aren’t characteristic of us. Some days we are tired, overwhelmed, or simply sad. I say we cause WE are a team. We are taking it one day at a time doing the best that we can, and eventually, we will be firing on both cylinders but until then thank you for all those that continue to visit our island even when it’s not the most hospitable.
The Dorton’s are currently prepping to go on our next camping adventure. We are excited that some of our favorite friends are joining us. Camping with other families can make a trip so much fun. I grew up camping with an extended camping family; there is a bond that forms in the woods with children, for me those relationships have lasted a lifetime. We took our oldest camping when she was about four months old, both our girls are used to the smell of a cold morning in a tent, the excitement of roasting marshmallows and the adventure that comes along with exploring nature. I can’t wait to help expose some new family campers to our journey.
A lot of parents that I talk to have a lot of nerves about getting out there. Everyone has a horror story about camping. The heat or the rain can test anyone, but the worst part universally is having to unpack a car after a long weekend. The best thing anyone can do is just keep it simple and plan for the weather. Below are my seven most essential items for a first-time family camper. Due to the limited space, car camping will force you to limit what you bring. This list below is a great start, and Pinterest has tons of camping checklists that can fill in the rest of the gaps, but these are the essential items that will get you started.
1) Tent – For new campers, my recommendation is to buy a tent that is within your budget and fits one or two more people than your family size. The fewer tents poles, the better! Don’t try to be a hero here, the more poles there are, the more likely you are to look like you have no idea what you are doing in front of your children. Before we purchased the travel trailer, we used our REI Kingdom 6 tent and loved it, but it was expensive. When you are ready to commit to multiple camping trips a year get a Kingdom tent, otherwise just get a good old fashion Coleman dome tent. They are pretty easy to put up and are pretty cost effective.
2) Air Mattress – Everyone is going to be in a better mood if you get a good night sleep so bring an air mattress. Unless you are sure, you are going to camp a lot don’t think about investing in an expensive air mattress. Here is the deal: when the temperatures drops at night, the mattress will lose air. THEY ALL LOSE AIR. There are all kinds of quality and comfort features, but all of them will lose air, you will probably need to reinflate the mattress every day and MAYBE even in the middle of the night. From what I have witnessed over the year, well-rested people are more likely to handle all the ups and downs of camping, so bring an air mattress and make it feel cozy like you were at home with some sheets, blankets, pillows and even your teddy bear.
3) Food – you are going to need to eat, and you are better than just hot dogs. You can cook anything while camping, for the most part, if you have the right tools. Camp stoves, dutch ovens, and griddles are all things that can open up so many possibilities. We have made everything from biscuits and gravy for breakfast to shrimp stir fry over quinoa for dinner. My three tips when it comes to food is 1) don’t bite off more than you can chew (pun intended), 2) prep at home, and 3) eat real food.
If I were just getting started with camping with the kids, I would keep breakfast simple. Cereal, granola bars, fruits, muffins or anything else that takes no prep. Scrambled eggs on a camp stove or a cast iron skillet on a campfire grate is another easy option. For Lunch, sandwiches are pretty straight forward. We tend to be on the go by Lunch time, so we usually go with anything we can toss in a backpack or small lunch cooler. Usually, it is a combo of Granola, nuts/seeds, fruits, and humus. If we are at the campsite, we make grilled cheeses over the fire with a cast iron pie iron. Dinner is the most painful, you’re tired from a great day and getting dinner going is probably the last thing on your mind. My suggestion is to cook it right on the campfire ring grill. Veggie foil packets are easy to prep ahead of time and almost fool proof when cooking. Kababs are another one I enjoy, prep it all before you go and skewer the kebabs once you are ready to cook. Finally, Taco Night is also a great option, prep the meat at home and get a skillet that can be used on a grill/fire and warm the meat up.
4) Cooler – My advice here is pretty simple, if you are going where there are bears and/or camping for seven days without access to ice then fine you justify to yourself that you need to buy a Yeti brand cooler, otherwise just get the cooler you probably already have in the garage. Bears aren’t an issue in most places and few people camp for long enough that justifies buying into the latest overpriced trend. If you don’t have a cooler, you can get a pretty reasonable one for well under $100. They don’t last forever so keep that in mind. Make sure you have room for the beer, trust me you will need a beer, we tried camping without them once, it wasn’t fun.
5) Bug Spray – Bugs are a bitch, wear bug spray. Ticks have replaced the Mosquitos paranoia here in Missouri, but West Nile and Zika continue to be a significant concern for many. I have heard people say it is all media hype, but I can tell you it is not; my great aunt became wheelchair bound after contracting West Nile, so it’s real. Wear bug spray. There are always new products coming out, and existing ones are always tweaking the formula, so I make sure to check out Consumerreports.org and Reviews.com for their latest reviews on sunscreen and bug spray. We have been using Swayer Insect Repellent for the last two years and have been happy with it.
6) Stuff for the kids – Entertained campers are happy campers. We always bring their favorite toys at the time. Something they can sit down in the tent and play with or on the campsite. Bubbles, Sidewalk chalk, coloring books and some ride-on toy are also must haves. There are tons of nature/outdoor activities to do, but I don’t expect anyone on their first adventure to start identifying trees and animal tracks. But you should always check with the park – they may have educational programs that can help fill the day. My final tip is one that Shannon thought of, go to a craft store or even Target and get package art kits. Our oldest loves when we bring out a project to sit work on at the picnic table. She has the freedom to get a little messier than she would at home and it is a great have a slower paced activity. Age appropriateness is a big thing here, and I think you just have to make sure to bring stuff they enjoy and mix in some new surprises that will hold their interest during down time. Finally, a cell phone with some games and movies is a great “emergency weapon,” no shame in our game.
7) Tarp – The single most used piece of camping equipment that I bring with me is a tarp. It can be put under a tent to protect the bottom (always do this). When the ground is wet, you can lay it on the ground and put a blanket over it for a place for the kids to play, nap, or eat lunch. Great to cover up items on the campsite if you think it is going to rain or have a lot of dew overnight. Nothing will save your nerves and the weekend more than tying a tarp up between some trees and making a shelter if a rain shower comes during the day. Along with making sure you get a good night sleep, keeping dry. Everyone will be happier if they have a place to stay dry. BRING A TARP!
Bonus Item – Patience – Camping can unlock so much for a child, but it can also teach an adult a lot, mainly the art of patience. I challenge you to go and take whatever Mother Nature throws at you with a grain of salt. You can usually quickly solve any problem thrown at you with a beer, a tarp or some patience. If those things don’t help, then drive to the nearest Walmart (it won’t be far) and buy whatever you need OR sit in the A/C for a bit.
For Shannon and I personally, we have both grown so much from our journey through the parks. We continue to learn so much about how to be patient with each other. Things don’t always go as planned and it is better to take a deep breath and tackle challenges together. Learning some patience has allowed us to stay in the moment with our family and not check out when things don’t go as planned.
Some days I asked what have we gotten ourselves into with touring the Missouri state parks. It is quite the complex undertaking. There is a lot of planning, research, and coordination that goes into figuring out our trips. I look at the grass growing up between the pavers in our patio, the weeds growing in our flower beds, the garage that still needs a spring cleaning and all the chores that are inside the house that we have chosen not to complete. The point in changing our life around and embarking on this adventure was to live a different life. The thing is: we love what we are doing and sitting still is just not who we are. We still are running at a fast pace, but we are heading to stuff that excites us.
The one variable that we can’t control with all these trips is the weather. Shannon and I have had a mutual understanding that the weather will not stop us. I grew up camping in the rain, and have survived some pretty hairy experiences camping. I often tell the tale from my twenties of the tornado we dodged while camping at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. A park ranger told us to take our beer and get in a ditch and I vividly remember telling him that I was going to go wherever the Rangers rode out the storm. That story becomes more of a fish tale the older I get – by the time I am fifty it will probably sound like we were trying to escape the Temple of Doom. I guess at the point I will have to explain what the Temple of Doom is to most people.
The previous weekend the weather forecast was calling for rain when we visited Rock Bridge State Park, Finger Lakes State Park, and Van Meter State Park. While there though, it barely sprinkled, so we didn’t pay the forecast much attention when we went to go pick up the camper from storage for our next trip. This was our second trip in the new camper and we were pretty excited. Towing a camper is entirely new to us, it has been the source of a lot of stress and endless humor. I had never heard of Anti-Sway Bars or a weight distribution kit. Frankly, I am not even sure I am saying those things right. The Anti-Sway Bars keep the trailer from swaying side to side while driving. They are a pain in the butt and when I was hooking them up this time my hand slipped and the handle came swinging down and came down on my stomach, groin, and thigh. It ripped right through my shorts from my waist to my leg! Here I am in the storage facility with my shorts nearly ripped off me and my favorite camo cargos are toast! (Save your fashion critique, I am married). After I had checked to make sure there was no blood and none of my parts were ripped off I go to get my phone to take a picture of my ripped shorts, because what else would I do! I had to send this pic to all my friends. Grabbed my phone out of my pocket and looked down and my phone was SHATTERED!!! At this point, we could do nothing but laugh, and my phone probably saved me from getting hurt seriously. I ended up with a scratch on my stomach and softball size bruise on my thigh, war wounds of an epic journey. Did this stop us? Nope! We finished hooking up the trailer and took it back to the house for the night half laughing at my now naked thigh, and half freaked out with how in over our heads we are.
In the morning, I took my phone to get fixed and surprisingly enough my phone just needed a new screen. We finally we able to leave a few hours behind schedule after finishing loading up. We hit the gas station and hit the road up the highway ramp and off we went, next adventure here we come. As we headed up the on-ramp, one of our clip on trailer mirrors flew off the side of the Jeep. Do we panic? Get pissed? We just laughed, I mean it was like $60 down the drain, but there was nothing we could do at that point. We kept going, pulling over to find that mirror on the side of the highway while pulling that trailer is not only dangerous but HUMILIATING. Next time I am ducking tape that little shit to the mirror. Excuse my language but its really the best word to use.
Finally, we get to the park, and we were able to back the trailer into the spot this time without someone physically having to do it for us. This time we just had to have someone just guide us, baby steps! We get out and set up camp, and it’s time for a cocktail. Whomp, Whomp, in our hurry to pack we forgot to bring all the booze. I should probably stop using the word booze because we don’t drink enough anymore to use it. There was steady traffic into the park, and the campground was filling up. There was a bit of a buzz around the park about the weather, the dark clouds were starting to roll in, and the weather alerts on our phones were going off. The park staff advised us that if anything happened, we should go up to the park shower house.
Like I mentioned earlier, camping in the rain doesn’t scare me, even mild storms are OK. In our tent camping days, it was pretty clear when to hit the deck. Maybe it’s cause we have kids now or maybe its cause the camper could give you a false sense of security, but I did not like the dark clouds at all. My anxiety kicked in full force, where would we go if the storms got bad? How far was the shower house? How would we drive the long road out of the park in the middle of the night if we need to leave? Would the river flood? Shannon, who is always cool as a cucumber, was like, it will be okay, but she could tell I was going to lose my mind going back and forth between three weather apps. The kids were so excited and we couldn’t just let the threat of rain ruin our weekend right? So we did what anyone would do, we drove to Walmart in town to wait and see what the weather would do. Not sure about you but camping just is not camping if a stop at Walmart isn’t involved. The sky is getting darker, and the reality that it could indeed storm and that I would have to wake my children up in the middle of the night and take them to a shower house to wait out a storm was weighing on me. Shannon sleeps like a ton of bricks so I probably would have had to leave her in the camper. I am joking, about leaving her. We decided to play it safe (I say “we” but it was me, I chickened out). We left Walmart and headed back the campsite, closed up shop for the night and headed home.
The campground was so close to home that we could just come back in the morning. I am willing to be the chicken in the group if it keeps the kids safe. We went home and ordered pizza and Shannon and the kids made a rocket ship out of a Zappos.com box that had come the day before. We laughed, played, stayed up late and then the four of us all camped out in our bed. Our three-year-old, Fancy, was pretty disappointed at first until she figured out she could trade camping for a ride to space in a Zappos.com box. Guys, this is it. I have been talking about changing priorities and changing our lives, and sometimes it all seems very conceptual new age hippy crap but this, this is it. The rain came and could have washed out all the fun, but we adapted, we changed, we enjoyed the moment. We lived in it.
The next morning we went back to the campsite, we joking told the folks in the site next to us we stayed at an AirBnB. They best part is it didn’t even storm!!! Some hard rain and some distant thunder but no trailers ripped to shreds and no children were hunkered down in a dirty shower house. Adventure doesn’t have to be grand, and we don’t have to put anyone’s life at risk. We had our adventure that day when we got back watching Fancy jump in the massive puddle that covered 80% of our campsite. It’s what camping should be and most certainly what camping on a rainy day should be. She ended up soaking wet from head toe and was the star of the campsite. Everyone came by and talked to us about how amazing it was that she was having the time of her life. One woman, who had to be close to her 60’s, confessed to us that Fancy inspired her and she put on her rain boots and took a couple of splashes in the puddles when we were at the playground. I think it might have been the alcohol that inspired her though but hey, at least she remembered to bring it.
We spent the rest of Saturday going to the playground, an interpretive program on snakes and going to the sand beach in the park. Two things I learned that afternoon was that fear is largely a learned behavior, so we ALL petted the snakes and secondly, our 1-year-old, Birdie, likes to eat sand. She is an incredibly picky eater and won’t go near most foods, but apparently, sand on the bank of a lake in a state park is delicious. Our site was a swamp, and every mosquito in the county came to hang out. We ended up calling it an early night and spending time in our new camper. Just simply being together. It was fun, uncomplicated, stress-free and forced us to feel relaxed in a way that we rarely feel. The rain allowed us to be still for once; we rarely get to be still.
Sunday, we dashed to drop the kids off at their grandparents so we could head to see Rent at the Fox Theater. It was a rush to get there with all the weekend’s craziness, and it made an already short camping trip even shorter, but to see Shannon’s face at the end of that show, I don’t have any more words to explain that one. No wit or banter can describe seeing an ear to ear smile on her face. I had not seen that since we were in Hawaii before our lives changed. I will gladly take on as many rainy weekends that I have to if even just a few of them end up with that smile again.