In the small West Virginia coal mining town where I grew up, money was scarce and vacations were either visits to my grandparents in the western part of the state or camping trips. The coal mines closed for two weeks in July so miners’ families would pack up and head for the Greenbrier River. There were great parks on the river but we couldn’t afford the daily camping fee so we would wilderness camp. My dad would go a week early and put up the tents to stake out our campsite in the woods before all the other families converged on the same area.
My mom worked for two weeks ahead of time, packing and cooking to prepare for our week away. Our tents didn’t have bottoms in them so she put tarps on the ground, then added throw rugs on top of that. All five of us had cots with blankets and pillows so you can imagine how packed the car was by the time we added camp stoves, fold-up tables, cooking utensils, water buckets, ice chests and food. Added to that were inner tubes for floating in the river and extra shoes for wading because the river had a rocky bottom with sharp rocks. The last thing stuffed into the car was the First Aid Kit for cuts, bruises and snake bites. Yes, there were snakes in the woods and in the river.
It took a full day to set up camp. Dad had to stretch rain tarps over the table where Mom would cook and we would all eat. There was another table with a water bucket and dipper plus a pan for hand washing. There were no toilets so a space had to be set up inside a small tent for a slop jar. It was emptied twice a day into a trench Dad dug several yards from the campsite.
I would awaken in the mornings to the mouth-watering aroma of bacon sizzling in the big iron skillet. We would toast slices of bread over the campfire to dip into soft-cooked eggs. Lunch was bologna and mustard or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Dinner was grilled hamburgers or hot dogs seared over the fire, served in buns with Mom’s homemade chile and baked beans. It seemed like she was always cooking, when she wasn’t keeping an eye on us while we floated or swam in the icy, clear river. Usually, she went in the water with us, swimming alongside or teaching my younger brothers to swim. My Dad was always fishing. When successful, dinner was fried fish with fried potatoes and fresh corn, roasted in the coals of the campfire.
At night, the kerosene lanterns were lit to keep away the bugs and we’d play cards or monopoly and toast mash-mallows over the campfire. My dad loved telling ghost stories, complete with sound effects which would send my youngest brother running into the tent, where he’d hide under his covers.
There were other families and relatives camping in the same area so there were always cousins and other kids to play with and the Moms switched off “guard duty.” I made friends during those summers with kids who are still my “old” friends today. Over time, our family graduated to better tents with zippers and floors, but the routine was still basically the same – my mom always working. As I grew old enough to appreciate all she did, I asked if she had ever felt “taken advantage of” on those summer trips. She was genuinely surprised at the question.
Her response, “Those are my fondest family memories, all of us in a crowded tent, the three of you still giggling as we all fell asleep.”
SHARON CANFIELD DORSEY is an award-winning poet and author of four children’s books; a memoir, Daughter of the Mountains; two books of poetry, Tapestry, and Walk with Me; and a travel memoir, Road Trip, all available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the author.