- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

It all started several years ago when my husband taunted me about my idea of “roughing it.” “You could never go camping,” he said. “There’s no place to plug in your hair dryer.”

It was a dare, a “throw down,” if you will.

The notion of camping had never appealed to me, what with all the bugs and outhouses and the potential to meet a skunk up-close. Nevertheless, I wasn’t willing to be dismissed as a shallow, superficial, electricity-dependent woman, too reliant on modern conveniences to commune with nature and sleep under the stars.

At the time, we were debating whether to go along on a family camp-out with friends from our children’s school. Once Jim declared I was too wimpy for a weekend in the woods, I had to prove him wrong. So we borrowed a tent and some sleeping bags, packed a cooler and headed to a state park with a brigade of families for some old-fashioned fun around the campfire.

It rained.

Not the light mist that waters the fauna and flora. It rained buckets, sheets, cats and dogs — choose the metaphor you like best.

Not only did it rain, but the tent we had borrowed leaked.

This was the moment when I discovered I am a fair-weather camper.

Still, my introduction to camping wasn’t all bad. I realized a campground is a place where children may roam free, making friends with other dirt-encrusted youngsters whose parents are similarly parked on collapsible chairs encircling a roaring fire.

So, after that first camping expedition, I decided we could be a camping family — but only if we owned the proper gear. I set about the task of assembling our camp.

It turned out that big box stores have whole aisles devoted to camping — and not just that, but aisles containing cool stuff especially designed for setting up a temporary residence in the wild. I figured our enjoyment of camping and the great outdoors would be enhanced if we had the proper tools.

Tent? Check.

Air mattresses? Of course.

Screened-in gazebo? Why not?

Tiki torches? Matching camp chairs? Outdoor rugs?

Over the years, I have turned our camping equipment into a prop trunk for a Martha Stewart photo shoot, all in the name of “atmosphere.”

I’m admittedly not a purist when it comes to camping — which is to say, I insist on campgrounds with flush toilets and running water. Still, I think camping should involve a tent, some mosquito netting, makeshift clotheslines and marshmallows on sticks.

We don’t bring electronics on our camping trips — only board games, decks of cards and books to read by the campfire. (We all have our notions of what it means to “rough it,” after all, and as my husband pointed out several years ago, my definition is surviving without things that plug in — such as a hair dryer).

Yet even without electricity, it’s not as easy to “get back to nature” as you might think. For one thing, campgrounds include sites for recreational vehicles as well as tent campers like us. This means there are folks in luxury liners disguised as campers with whole walls that pop out from the sides of the vehicles to accommodate formal dining rooms, master suites and whirlpool tubs.

Not only are they larger than many urban condos, RVs also include every modern convenience available back home.

In my mind, it just isn’t camping if you’re on your laptop at your RV’s desk/command center while your children are playing with an Xbox in the next room.

While we gather around our campfire making s’mores and telling spooky stories, the “campers” on the next site over stoke up their satellite dish to catch a rerun of “24” or an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Somehow the woods just don’t hold the same mystery with the blue glow of Nickelodeon dancing in the leaves.

Fortunately, most campgrounds post “quiet hours,” which means sometime around 10 p.m., all the people with surround sound for their on-board theater systems must turn down the volume.

About this time, you can hear owls in the trees, small animals rustling in the underbrush and faint laughter from somewhere in the darkness.

This is the part of camping I like best. These camping memories come to me as I contemplate stealing one last weekend from summer before the season changes.

I’m thinking about the glow of the fire casting its flickering orange light on the faces of my family. I often wonder about the things that occupy their thoughts, as we take turns poking at the embers and telling one another our plans for the weeks and months ahead.

By about midnight, we’re usually exhausted, and it’s time to bunk down in our tent. It takes a while to fall asleep, what with the unexpected cracking of twigs among the trees and, occasionally, footsteps passing by our campsite.

I never sleep long on a camping trip. The sound of birds chirping breaks the morning silence with echoed calls to announce the day, and I wake up. After a few minutes, I usually wiggle out of my sleeping bag, light the camp stove and put on a pot of coffee.

Roughing it isn’t so rough after all.

Then again, it turns out there are plugs in the ladies room. Now where did I put that hair dryer?

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.mary bethhicks.com) or send e-mail to [email protected]

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