Camping season has begun! Well, in California, anyway. The balmy April weather has me reminiscing about our first lone camping experience as a family, a nightmare that would have made a perfect “I Love Lucy” episode.

In the days of our (relative) youth, when we still had kids at home and took an annual road trip to the homeland in North Dakota, we decided it would be fun to camp our way home instead of moteling it. We’d never been camping by ourselves, but felt we’d had adequate training on joint trips with friends. Campsites are cheaper than motels, plus we wanted to make great family memories. And so we set off.

Our second night found us on the plains of Nebraska, not near a babbling brook, not under spreading trees, but next to a strip mall. The KOA book missed this detail. After backing our van into our parking space and cutting the motor, we were assaulted by country Western music pouring through an outside speaker. With apologies to my country music loving friends, my listening limit for this musical form is about five minutes. I have no patience for these sad sacks who are constantly losing their trucks, their dogs, their jobs and their wives, over and over. You’d think they’d figure it out eventually.

But that was the least of our issues. It was a typically humid summer night in the Midwest, coupled with a typically ferocious wind. Climbing out of the van and being blown sideways, we were presented with two awful gifts. One was the stench of a dairy farm, obviously nearby. The other was hundreds of gnats being driven into our eyes and mouths and up our noses. It was perfectly miserable.

We battled the wind to set up the tent, with the stakes pulled out as fast as we could pound them in. We finally gave up and tied it to trees on either side. Even then, the wind pummeled the empty tent, giving the impression of a wrestling match going on inside.

Next up was dinner, a feast of boxed macaroni and cheese. Lighting the camp stove in the wind was all but impossible. When we finally got it going, the water refused to boil. People were getting a little snappish. My husband may have given me suggestions on how to boil water. I may have informed him that I had previous experience and didn’t need suggestions. We had a tense dinner on the prairie.

When that ordeal was finished, my husband and son decided to go for a swim at the campground pool, in a sheltered area a five-minute walk away. My daughter and I stayed behind to clean up in the warm, damp wind, while being plastered with hundreds of gnats The boys returned forty-five minutes later, declining to untie their towels from around their waists so I could hang them to dry. It turned out the pool had been heavily chlorinated, rendering their swimming trunks not only bleached, but nearly transparent.

With the wind still raging through the campground there was to be no lounging around the campfire at dusk, no toasted marshmallows for s’mores, and no bonding while gazing at the stars. We escaped into our sleeping quarters, accompanied by clouds of gnats. The walls billowed in and out around us until we discovered that keeping both the front and back screens open made a path for the wind to whoosh straight through instead of tearing at the tent. After slapping a few hundred gnats, we settled into exhausted sleep.

We woke to a calm morning. Thankfully it was too early for the loudspeaker. But the dairy was still there, stinkily lurking nearby. We snarfed down breakfast and got out of there as fast as we could.

Ten miles down the freeway, away from the smell and the mall, we were greeted by the final insult. In the near distance, nestled in a tiny valley, lay a gorgeous campground in a natural setting of streams and sheltering trees. The campground that could have been our destination, had we only known it was there.

But we’d set out to make a memory, and that’s exactly what we did. Of all our camping experiences, this disaster is the one we talk about (and laugh about) the most.

“I Love Lucy” has nothing on us.

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