Tri-City Ledger -

By Earline Smith Crews
Guest Writer 

The many adventures of happy camping


August 29, 2019

We camped.

It was cheap and fun.

During the Oil Embargo of 1973-74 we had saved enough money to take a trip to Colorado. In his military days Lamar had been stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and always wanted to show me the place that inspired him to go to college. He had been an airman assigned to the motor pool and drove those big, old coach buses that shuttled the cadets to concerts and the ski areas. He saw how a fellow with a degree had the upper hand and he wanted some of that. Once honorably discharged, he wooed me, married me and convinced me to keep working until the G.I. Bill could be used to get us to a better life.

It worked.

He got a good job and we got our daughter, Peggy. Saved our money, borrowed an old Army surplus canvas tent from his teenage nephew. The tent had seen its better days on Coldwater Creek and other swampy places.

We headed to Colorado. Gas shortage be damned, we were going camping in Colorado.

Living in Dade City, Florida we spent the first night in Hollandtown (also Florida) with his family. The second and third night were spent in Houston, Texas with his sister and her family--no sweat, free lodging and well-fed so far. Only burr under our saddle was Peggy (age three) asking every dad-blame mile:

"When are we going to get there?"

"Lay down and rest, we are in Texas."

As the sun was laying dead into our eyes and on the pavement of I-40 just east of Amarillo, she asks for the 1000th time:

"Are we there yet?"

I answer with, "No we are still in Texas."

Big screaming fit in the back of that car (no car seats, no child in restraints in those days). She screams:

"How far is TEXAS??”

We have used that question many times in our travels when things get tense and we get lost.

"How far is Texas?"

We decided on Monument Lake to stake our claim for the ultimate camping in America's great outdoors. Better part of the afternoon pitching that heavy wad of canvas. Lots of sweating, cussing, tugging and trying to get the thing straightened, tight and squared.

It sagged and lay cattawompus.

"Let 'er sag dammit. I'm tired and sleepy."

We climbed inside and heard the crackle of newspaper that I had lined my and Peggy's sleeping bag with. Lamar had bought a new sleeping bag at the Big K-Mart. Jr. size. He lay scrunched and freezing without a wink.

Deep into that frigid night we both realized we had pitched at the foot of that big old lake. If it breeched, we would be found hanging in a tangle of mesquite and cactus somewhere in New Mexico. Long night for us. Peggy was snug as a tick on a porch dog, snuggled against my chest with my circulation-deprived arms holding that precious little camper. Daylight brought the reality of water leeching up inside due to our absence of knowledge about the tent needing a waterproof ground cover to set the whole mess on.

Very important.

We ate our breakfast of Hostess donuts and frozen milk before heading out to see the Air Force Academy.

Oh, the place was beautiful.

Lamar looked wistful at times. Other times he smiled and pointed out his favorite places to Peggy. She wanted to roll around in the beautiful grass while I was staggering about from sleep deprivation. I was enchanted with the glass chapel. Peggy was enchanted with making loud noises while looking up towards heaven. Her three-year-old childish sounds caused tourists to frown at me.

"Hey Colonel's wife, hear the echo? That is my darling baby girl. Isn't she just too precious for words?"

After a hard day of elevation adjustment and wonderful fresh mountain air we staggered our way back to camp. Hope tonight would be better. On the way back to camp we stopped at the Big K-Mart and bought insulated long johns, a plastic liner for the top and bottom of the tent, an electric blanket, an extension cord and a thermos for the milk.

There now.

First thing we noticed on entering the tent was white tracks leading from the food bags over to our suitcase. Chipmunks had cut holes in the bottom of our house and enjoyed a picnic of Hostess powered donuts. Peggy decided she was going to be eaten by the chipmunks. Big fuss. Dinner was served at the nearby IHOP. By golly we slept that night with the help of heat and Tylenol PM. Breakfast was served at the nearby IHOP.

Today we laugh at our favorite picture of that camping out with Peggy climbing on a rail fence beside a posted sign that reads,

DON'T CLIMB ON THE FENCE. We honestly didn't notice the sign because our child was so precious-looking, all posed there.

We waited in line for gas, made new friends all the way across America in those lines and slept in cheap motels after LONG days of driving back to central Florida. Lodging costs makes for long days on the road. That was such a fun trip it set us on the road to camping all over the country. Jon was born in 1976 and took his first camping trip to a KOA in Ocala when he was six weeks old. By that time we had a few kinks worked out.

Things happen during camping the great outdoors that bring a family together in the craziest of ways. One July 4th campout on the banks of Little Escambia Creek (AKA Charlie's Creek), the fireworks set a tree on fire in its very top. Dead wood made for a slow all-night burn. That same camp out gave us our first chance to hear The Judds sing LOUD on the radio from Atmore. Introduced as Wyoming and Nairobi, we screamed with delight as those Kentucky girls sang, "Why Not Me."

"Turn it up y'all…"

I threw all my cooking utensils into the garbage one time by mistake. We got chiggers, ticks, grease splatters & sunburns. We ate charred BBQ & didn't bathe unless we felt the need and/or felt sand in our cracks and in our beds. But take my word for this, we had fun in spades. First in tents, then moving up off the ground in a little pop-up camper. Finally, a motor home for our first trip to Alaska.

On a camping trip to the Smokies, I listened to the most beautiful piece of music I have ever heard as the rain pattered on the canvas top of that little popup camper. Everybody was snoring as I cried from pure joy of being in that place, in that moment of time with the ones I loved the most. Peggy was home from college and had the CD of “After the Rain” by Michael Jones.

Today the kids tell us the best times we had as a family were the weekends we spent on Little Escambia Creek, Coldwater Creek, Blackwater River and even Vernon, Texas at a KOA where the swimming pool was filled with duck feathers and we parked underneath a cottonwood tree while August winds refused to abate. The top of the pop-up shook and swayed, and those tough desert leaves sounded like a Jesus Church fan hung in bicycle spokes. We were seeing this great country with all it had to offer while camping on the cheap.

***Y'all, I would do it all again.***

You can check out Earline’s blog and buy a copy of her first book “Life With the Top Down” at:


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