The beauty of the Adirondack Park in New York State is world renowned. During the 20th century, historic families including the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers visited the park in brief respites from their urban, harried lives. Their Great Camps remain a symbol of our need to find solitude in natural surroundings.
Within the 6.1 million acres of the park, a lone station wagon pulling an overloaded camper winds along an asphalt path, which cuts through the mountain boreal forest. A thick covering of deep green conifers rolls away from the cut toward endless rows of high mountain peaks; exposed bedrock of purple and blue hues completes the backdrop. Across the vista, it is the quietude that is the loudest…complete and utter tranquility.
Inside the lone car, the silence is broken…IF IT GOES OUT THE WINDOW…OUT OF YOUR MOUTH…OWWWWW…SHE DID IT….I HAVE TO….NOT STOPPING…NO MORE CANDY…MOVE YOUR ELBOW…STOP YOUR SINGING…IF I HAVE TO TURN AROUND…GIVE IT BACK…NEVERMIND.
We were a camping family! And we were on the move!
In the spirit of the 1970’s, we seldom made campground reservations; we camped when it felt right. It felt right on many summer weekends and when my father could get the extra time off from work. We knew the drill: supply the camper, notify the neighbors, feed the cat.
Within the Adirondack Park, there are 41 State-run campgrounds. 41 campgrounds with hundreds of campsites. As the fully packed trailer-pulling station wagon with four screaming kids wound through the park, it was greeted by signs that others had been here before us:
- Nick’s Lake – NO VACANCY
- Limekiln Lake – NO VACANCY
- Eighth Lake – NO VACANCY
- Golden Beach – NO VACANCY
- Rollins Pond – NO VACANCY
- Fish Creek Pond – NO VACANCY
As we traveled the State looking for a campsite, it is important to understand the order of things. While my parents were in the cockpit, my older sister and brother enjoyed the comforts of the first class cabin; safely buckled, and periodically fed like a mother bird feeding the most vocal young within the nest. My younger sister and I were ballast; strategically placed in the back of the station wagon to move to and fro, unfettered by seatbelts to provide the required stability as we maneuvered around each sharp turn. After 3 hours of touring, we left the tranquility of the Adirondack Park!
We traveled south along the Northway toward Lake George. The beauty of the Lake George region…(on frazzled nerves, we dispatched the narrator)!
The sign up ahead said “Roger’s Rock Campground.” We turned sharply left into the campground, with my sister and me providing sufficient ballast to maintain an adequate number of wheels on the pavement. We approached the gatehouse and my mother reached into her bag and pulled out her list of “Best Campsites: 1970-1974.” Over time, she had created and maintained the most comprehensive list of campgrounds and campsites known to mankind, including a rating system that only she could decipher. “Ask for campsite 54. Five stars! It’s by the water, has a nice open area, limited mosquitoes, and is close to the bathrooms.” She added, “If it’s taken, we can’t stay here!”
Campsite 54 was not taken and was exactly as my mother described. My father backed the camper into the site successfully and we jumped out of the car and ran the short distance to the bathrooms; upon our return, we were ready to explore. “Where do you think you are going?” my mother intoned. I looked over to my older sister, waiting for a sage response that did not come. “You have chores to do before you traipse off.” I never traipsed in my life. (C’mon sister…get us out of the chores and traipsing…………..nothing!)
“Before you explore (now you’re talking my language), we need you to: fill the water jugs, fetch some kindling, and bring back some beer cans…”
“Ughhh…beer cans again?” My mother was under the delusion that beer cans were a palatable fashion statement of the ‘70s. Thinking back…maybe they were! Part of the camping experience was combing the woods for discarded beer cans; we had quotas. My mother would wash them, cut the front faces off, hole punch them and knit them into hats…wide brimmed hats, sun visors, baseball caps…Ballantine, Piels, Schafer, Pabst, Utica Club. Nothing says you’ve made it in this world better than a hat that reads “When You’re Out Of Schlitz, You’re Out Of Beer!” “Hi…what’s your name? I’m Steven. I see your mother has you looking for beer cans too.” The ‘70s were one messed up decade!
With camp set up, beer cans cleaned and the knitting begun, we sat around the beginnings of a campfire. There’s nothing more Americana than sitting around the fire, drinking coffee or hot cocoa, eating s’mores, telling stories (and knitting beer can hats)! Then, like ants at a picnic, the smoke gets in your eyes. Did you ever wonder why smoke follows you around a campfire. I have. No matter where you sit, the smoke will turn in your direction. There must be a scientific explanation; like the science behind the “smoke shifter.”
With the smoke continuing unabated, my father asked if I could visit some of the adjacent campsites to ask fellow campers if we could borrow their “smoke shifter.” My father indicated we had one, but had inadvertently left it back home. He noted that any self-respecting camper owned one and would gladly share it with a fellow camper. I accepted the quest, and, in no time, returned with the shifter, which apparently worked, much to my father’s chagrin. Don’t question science!
Sitting around the now smokeless campfire, we reminisced about past camping experiences.
We talked about Belden Hills. Camping with my Aunt, Uncle and cousins. Visiting the strawberry patch each morning or the concession stand in the afternoon. Camping there on July 4th was a perennial favorite.
We reminisced about the one and only time my father picked up a hitchhiker during our travels. It was the quietest ride, no talking, just a lot of wide eyes moving from side to side. The hitchhiker sitting between my older sister and brother, with only the sound of tumbling ballast breaking the silence.
Or the time, we purposely walked into a fenced enclosure to watch big, black bears feed on garbage. Apparently, this was a common source of entertainment among folks in rural areas. We were told by the locals that as long as you could single out someone who, for whatever reason, could not run as fast as you, you would be all right. I looked over at my younger sister. “Sure dad…let’s go!”
We reminisced about the time we had to choose between going to the Amish pretzel factory or the Lebanon Bologna factory. “You can learn how to twist and tie a pretzel…they’ll give you a certificate.” My mother spoke to us like children as I looked down at my untied shoelaces. “I like bologna too” I echoed in affirmation of my brother’s choice. We went to the bologna factory. It was Wednesday and Wednesday was slaughter day! I remember two things from the tour…the rest I have blocked out. I remember our guide starting the tour holding an electric cattle prod…”As you can see, the cattle pass through…” My second and last memory was receiving a certificate and longing for the taste of a pretzel.
Over the years we visited many more places and received many more certificates. I could tell stories about how horses don’t like to be in tents or how I saw New Hampshire’s “Old Man of the Mountain” before it fell off of the face of the earth to land, for posterity’s sake, on that state’s quarter.
We grew up camping. None of us would trade our experiences for any of today’s attractions. While camping did provide my parents brief respites from their urban, harried lives, it more importantly, provided opportunities for our family to grow together; the memories and lessons are priceless. (I need only mention Thrasher’s french fries to put a smile on their faces!)
Together, we were able to let loose and forget, albeit for a brief time, the stresses of our everyday life. We played and laughed together; one time so loud that rangers threatened to cart my mom off during a rousing game of Pictionary. We will tell these stories over and over for the rest our lives. So go forth and camp. Make memories. Earn certificates. Bring your family and your smoke shifter.
The lone station wagon pulling an overloaded camper turned right into the driveway; ballast shifted left. Home! The doors opened and the kids jumped out. “Where do you think you are going?” my mother intoned. “You have chores to do before you traipse off.” But we were already out of voice range, knowing full well we had much more distance to cover to get beyond the cowbell broadcast system!