The thing I like most about camping is how it reduces life to its essentials: basically, I eat, sleep, build fires, read, and drink wine (more on that later). Going to the bathroom becomes an activity, even if you’re glamping (more on that later, too). The day is full and goes all too quickly, even when the only to-do item is to try s’mores with chocolate graham crackers and peanut butter cookies.

My husband was a real camper: he hiked into the woods carrying only what he could in his backpack, slept on a roll on the ground, purified stream water for drinking. When he passed away, our kids were 13, 11, and 5. I thought they’d never have those outdoor adventures, because I knew I would never take them alone (see wine and glamping).

Fast forward three years and I had met Mike, a man who grew up riding quads and climbing trees, my three kids and his 16-year old nephew, MJ, who Mike had been raising for the past four years due to his sister’s drug addiction.

We had to include Bryan, a former student of mine who had helped me around the house since my husband’s death, took my kids on bike ride excursions, and made sure that the grass didn’t grow so high that I’d get fines from the township. Bryan said he’d love to bring his sister and I was glad to hear it — we had no idea what we were doing so what was one more person?

So there we were — a single mom with three kids, Mike, whom I’d been dating less than 6 months, his troubled nephew, Bryan, and his developmentally delayed sister, off on a camping adventure. I guess I should mention here that my kids hadn’t met MJ yet, and none of us had met Bryan’s sister Erin.

I don’t remember if there was tension as we ineptly set up our tents. I don’t remember if there was bickering as we decided who would sleep where. What I do remember is: within an hour of being set-up, everyone was giving each other piggy back rides, almost all of the snacks had been opened and sampled, and we had a fledgling fire.

What I remember the most is the kids’ faces when we went out on the rock glacierat night, and they looked up at the sky and saw the most stars they had ever seen. They gasped and went silent. When they could speak, one said, “Ah, so that’s what they mean about the Milky Way” and they excitedly pointed out the big and little dippers, and asked us questions we couldn’t answer. We stared so long our necks hurt and we had to lie on our backs so we could keep staring.

We’ve gone back to that same campground for ten years now. We were sad when they took down the lean-to we carved our names in right before we left on that first trip, but everything else about the campground has stayed the same, and I’m sure that’s part of what brings us back.

Ten years ago, the kids were less dependent on their cell phones and cell towers weren’t as pervasive. Now, we can use our phones freely and yes, there were times I had to say, “Put the phones down!” but the technology comes in handy too. We use the Star Map guide when we go out on the rocks at night. We play app games like “What If” and “Head’s Up” when we’re sitting around the fire. And of course, we each use our phone’s flashlight feature when we go to the bathroom.

We have gotten better at camping: we now use a pop-up trailer instead of tents; we have so much more equipment that we are probably officially glamping. We keep mason jar wine glasses in our trailer and take a portable ice machine with us (=glamping); we have a whole system for setting up our kitchen and a propane tree that hooks up to both the grill and the camp stove at once.

Here is the only part that is important: we still go. The kids are much older and have their own full, rich lives, but they come to Blue Rocks, sometimes with a friend or partner in tow. Mike’s nephew has had troubles and stints in rehabs, but he comes with us when he can. Erin has a job and a driver’s license, plays basketball and golf for the Special Olympics, and almost always has a boyfriend, but she joins us when her schedule is not too tight.

My kids moved through school and my daughters have even graduated college, so now we have to bring more wine, but I don’t mind. At a certain point in these past ten years, Bryan’s girlfriend Nicole joined us and it felt like she’d always been part of the group. They got married a few years ago and on this last Labor Day weekend trip, their new baby Elliott came right along. He has his own “Go Pod” chair, at four-months old, and he went right with the flow.

We hike the glacier, take lots of photos, and remember past trips. My daughters wash the dishes in the cold-water-only sink, complaining less than they do at home, just as they’ve always done. My son, an avid gamer and YouTube addict, has been known to simply watch a caterpillar make it the entire way around the fire ring. Mike putters around the campsite, adding a string of lights, moving the tiki torches, always finding some sort of home improvement. I spend a lot of time in the anti-gravity lounger, just watching. Slowing down this much allows us all to literally catch up.

We tend to go to bed early when camping, and follow each other like ducks one by one once the first person heads off to the trailer. No one has fallen asleep yet by the time we’ve all relocated: my three kids, Mike, and maybe an extra friend or two tucked in. Despite how much I love the hiking, the grilled steaks, the games and the wine, this is my favorite part of the trip. I sleep so well when we’re camping, and it’s certainly not just mountain air. We say our goodnights and I lay there for a bit, listening to each person’s breath, trying to distinguish one from the other.


This piece was previously published on Huffington Post, 9/9/2016.