SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK — As we returned to our campsite, we noticed that someone else had set up their tent about 100 feet from ours. And they apparently got their calm in the woods not by listening to chirping birds or rustling leaves, but by setting up a stereo and blaring the likes of Bob Seger, Bob Marley, and Edwin McCain.
This didn’t jibe with our style of camping, and in ordinary circumstances I may have made a polite request.
But this trip was different. In our tent we had two ticking time bombs: Our twins, 2½, were camping for the first time. It could earn us scorn and derision throughout this lush — and theoretically serene — campground.
At this point, just a few hours into our trip, everything was great. They got giddy over setting up the tent, had fun jumping inside it, and put on expressions of wonderment when we saw a deer nearby.
But any number of things could go wrong. They could refuse sleep. They could wake up at 2 a.m., frightened and loud. They could wander over to our neighbors and begin pilfering food. Their late night chatter, while endearing to me and my wife, Anne, could easily become the annoyance of others.
Maybe, I began to think, Seger crowing “Night Moves” wouldn’t be so bad after all.
. . .
For Anne and me, camping has been a cherished experience. When we were dating we hiked into the Smokies, camped for a night, and hiked right back out after a bear ate our food (disputes still linger as to who was first to leave the campsite, and how quickly). As newlyweds, we’d retreat to campgrounds in the Berkshires, with its brilliant campsites around Mount Greylock. We’d trek to Acadia, emerging from our basic accommodations to feast on popovers overlooking Jordan Pond.
But since having children, we hadn’t popped a tent. Now it was time for a new adventure, time to initiate our offspring into what we hope will be a tradition.
Friends we told about our trip thought we were either brave or crazy. Some new parents recommend camping first in the backyard, so the kids can get used to the tent. Others warn that your first camping trip should be somewhere nearby, so you can bail in the middle of the night if things go awry.
We hadn’t found the time or space to attempt backyard tenting, and we were heading 2½ hours away from home.
We enthusiastically hyped up every possible aspect of this two-night trip. We would pitch a tent! You can sleep in sleeping bags! We’ll look at stars! We’ll make a fire (even though we normally warn you to stay away from hot stoves and backyard grills)! We’ll roast s’mores (even though we normally tell you to eat your vegetables)!
Initially our daughter, Abigail, was reluctant. “No camping,” she’d say, without explanation. “No camping,” she’d repeat, pouting.
As the trip grew near, she began to grow as excited as her brother, Benjamin, who was eager to go camping, just like his role model, Curious George.
. . .
Shenandoah National Park is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and comprises nearly 200,000 acres of parkland along a long and narrow strip of wilderness. The extensive trail system was built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, and they must have been busy: There seems to be a trailhead every few miles.
As soon as you enter the park, you drive along the only main road, Skyline Drive. It’s a 105-mile, two-lane road that travels north to south through the park, with 75 overlooks offering spectacular views to the east and west.
We had all the gear we used to take (propane grill, lantern, tent), and much we didn’t (stuffed animals, children’s books, baby wipes). After entering the park’s eastern entrance and driving about 20 miles, we arrived at our destination: Big Meadows Campground, where $20 a night provides a picnic table, fire grate, and a small plot for a tent.
We had timed the trip so the kids would nap in the car, but they were too excited to sleep. So when we arrived, we unloaded the car with gusto. Tent poles came whipping out, used as weapons. Crazy creek chairs were tossed about like Frisbees. Once we got the tent up, they frolicked inside. Shortly after they got out of the tent, a deer passed by.
With the campsite set up, we decided it was time for our first hike of the trip. We settled on Dark Hollow Falls Trail, a 1.4-mile trek amid stands of hemlocks and with a reward at the end: a waterfall.
At the start, Benjamin and Abigail collected rocks in their hands and their pockets, saving them to toss into the water. But shortly after they did, they ran out of steam. They whined. They insisted on being carried. As soon as Benjamin got in the pack on my back, he instantly fell asleep and let me do the solo 440-foot rocky climb back up to the car.
When we arrived back at the campsite, we had a lot more company. Everyone was streaming in on a Friday night: older couples on motorcycles, large families in SUVs who took up several sites, young couples in sedans.
Most camping is unique in that it thrusts you both away from humanity and right smack within it. We were away from civilization, with spotty cellphone coverage and no electricity. But we were also near other people, close enough to hear their conversations (or their music). It’s a bit like staying at a hotel that doesn’t have walls.
The first night, we cooked grilled cheese sandwiches. Plates were filled with strawberries, carrots, and hummus. But the main event was the campfire, and the sticks we had collected to prepare the first ingredient of s’mores.
They burned the marshmallows, and enjoyed blowing the fire off. Ben devoured his chocolate and graham cracker creation. Abigail savored hers.
As the sun set, we had one more surprise: headlamps. We figured they’d enjoy putting a flashlight onto their heads and walking around in the dark. That lasted for about 5 minutes.
When we all climbed into the tent together, it was way past their normal bedtime. Everyone was exhausted. We read a few books, they rearranged their sleeping bags several times. But they fell asleep quickly. Relief.
. . .
The next day, we hiked the nearby Mill Prong Trail. As a diversion to get them to hike, we told them to search for walking sticks. As a way to pay us back, they fought over the walking sticks.
This was another 1.4-mile trail, which had a creek in the middle. More rocks were collected and thrown into the creek. They jumped off logs. They walked across the creek. They learned that the “blue blaze” on the trees marks the path of the trail.
After the hike, we began driving along Skyline Drive, heading south to explore. But then both kids fell asleep. So we kept driving. And driving. For about 90 minutes we drove. They awoke when we reached the Loft Mountain wayside. They seemed to realize this place had ice cream, and their parents wouldn’t be able to resist buying some.
With stomachs filled, we began a hike along the Frazier Discovery Trail, which is a 1.3-mile circuit that has stunning vistas at the top, as well as a giant, 100-foot rock (which, Benjamin remarked, would make a big splash if it could be dropped in the creek).
Back at the campsite, after our spaghetti dinner, it was like they were old pros. They made s’mores. They wore headlamps. We were becoming a camping family — at least partly. A boy who looked to be 7 chided me for taking Ben to the bathroom in his diaper, reminding me that we still had our limits.
Once again, they went to sleep quickly. More quickly than their parents, who stayed awake listening to the neighbors blare their tunes at 11 p.m.
. . .
On our final morning, we had oatmeal and began to pack up. The twins seemed confused when we began disassembling our temporary home.
We’d seen at least a dozen deer, a turkey, a ladybug, and a beaver dam.
We did one final hike, the Limberlost Trail, which was one of the best of all. The 1.3-mile circuit trail was fairly level and had a path paved with little pebbles. It goes past swampy areas, past a creek, and through dense forest. Abigail hiked the whole trail without being carried.
When we arrived home a few hours later, they both began to cry, longing to be back at the campsite. Over the next few weeks they would often pretend to be building a campsite with pillows and blankets.