The Reluctant Townie: That's why it's called 'roughing it'

The Reluctant Townie: That's why it's called 'roughing it'

We tried to go camping as a family this summer. We really did.

My eldest daughter turned 6 this week, and my youngest turned 2 at the beginning of the summer, so we felt it was time to get busy making memories for their childhood.

We even planned it in advance, reserving a campsite at Starved Rock for my birthday in June. But as the day approached, it became clear that the weather was not going to cooperate.

The night we were supposed to leave, I watched a storm system the size of Illinois and most of Wisconsin glide over the Doppler map.

So we lost the deposit, which is a bummer, and we didn't get to make memories for our kids, which is a double bummer. An attempt foiled through no fault of our own.

A month later, we rolled the dice again and booked another two-night reservation at Starved Rock, this time for my wife's birthday.

In the days leading up to our second attempted camping trip, the weather looked as if it would behave.

I went ahead and bought food for two nights worth of campfire-cooked meals and packed them with ice in a cooler.

When the day arrived, it became apparent that another gigantic storm system would be sweeping across the Land of Lincoln to claim our campsite deposit again.

And so, the family camping trip was canceled for a second time.

The morning of my wife's birthday (the second day of our second reservation), there was a glimmer of hope. The amount of rain had been reduced for that evening's forecast.

As the day progressed, the forecast became less certain of its prediction, gradually acquiescing the probability of precipitation, and sometime after lunch, the threat of thunderstorms disappeared from the forecast entirely. It was now to be sunny and seasonably mild. In all, perfect camping weather.

A spur-of-the-moment decision was made to resume the family camping trip, in medias res.

Now, depending on whom you ask, the time of this fateful decision fluctuates rather significantly.

My beloved wife clearly remembers having the conversation at 2 p.m. Central Standard Time and offers the rock-solid alibi of her opinion to back it up. I am certainly not calling her a liar (because I am not stupid; she knows where I sleep and which food to poison), but I rather clearly remember having the conversation between the hours of 3:30 and 4 p.m. CST.

Either way, as the camping trip had been officially canceled (twice), I had never bothered to pack the family wagon with camping supplies. Faced with a sudden time crunch (depending on whose recollection you trust, as long as three hours or as little as 45 minutes), I scrambled to gather and pack the essentials and situate them in a rooftop carrier.

By all measures (except perhaps for those of my wife), I assembled the supplies in a heroic amount of time.

We set out on the road to Starved Rock around dinner ... and then promptly had to turn around for an essential item left at the house.

Half an hour later, we set out again, and I was as determined as ever to make it to the campsite.

At the gas station, I discovered a bizarre rattling sound underneath the passenger-side floorboard. The heat shield had rusted through and was dangling from the exhaust. Not ideal! But like Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrell on the back of a motorcycle in the '80s, nothing was going to stop us now.

Not even the semitrailer that merged into my lane without warning an hour later and forced the family wagon onto the shoulder of the interstate at 70 miles per hour. But fate wasn't counting on my Mario Kart reflexes to kick in — I launched a turtle shell and dropped a couple banana peels and managed not to perish in a fiery death.

Better luck next time, fate!

We drove into the campground with 30 minutes of sunlight to spare. As I was a Boy Scout for many years, I knew the importance of setting up camp while there was still light, so I considered this to be a good omen.

We bought firewood, parked and my wife unloaded the children while I unloaded the rooftop carrier. I pulled down the tent bag, eager to set it up in the remaining light, and dumped its contents on the ground.

Unfortunately, there was no tent inside of the bag. In its place, there was a wad of folded tarps posing as a tent, the duplicitous traitors.

In that moment, my wife canceled the family camping trip for a third time.

But I was beyond the point of reasoning and found the nearest 24-hour Walmart on Google Maps. We drove the 40-minute round trip, and against her better judgement, my wife bought a tent large enough to fit our queen-size inflatable mattress.

We arrived back at the campsite mere minutes before the attendant locked the entry gate for the night, and by the fickle light of an LED lantern held by my daughter as she practiced delirious ballet moves, I attempted to set up our brand-new tent.

I am happy to report that the tent itself is magnificent, spacious like something out of a Harry Potter book and a good value for what we paid. Sadly, it also has the unfortunate design of being asymmetrical and therefore needlessly difficult. While most tents have a square footprint supported by criss-crossing, two-arched poles, this tent was an odd rectangle with dormers and awnings and a complex system of six poles of varying lengths and shapes.

After wrestling with the tent for some time, I gave into the madness and let the wilderness consume me.

Somehow, we managed to erect the tent despite having forgotten to bring a mallet to hammer in the stakes, or my wits.

Attempts to start a campfire in the meantime were disappointing, despite the noble sacrifice of my wife's Sudoku book. By then, our youngest child had been asleep for hours, and the picture-perfect evening of roasting s'mores and emotionally scarring our children with scary stories was no longer an option.

In partial defeat, I pulled out our queen-size, self-inflating air mattress (complete with self-inflating pillows), only to unroll it and discover that it was a twin-size, self-inflating mattress with a dead battery (another imposter).

So we slept on a picnic blanket from the trunk of the wagon, covered by our sleeping bag. And by we, of course I mean my wife and my children, as I was relegated to the edge of the picnic blanket, and beyond — a bed of pointed gravel.

We slept on underwear for pillows (Happy birthday, wife).

In the morning, we awoke, and life wasn't terrible. We had survived the night, and in some ways, we had succeeded. We had camped. Finally. We would get up, have breakfast and then explore the woods.

I retrieved the propane stove and began to heat up a pot of coffee, pulling my wife's uneaten birthday cake from the flotsam of the half-melted cooler.

It was then that I became aware of the most grievous of my failings: I had packed 200 pieces of camping silverware and not a single coffee mug.

We were in a McDonald's drive-thru by 7 a.m.

Ryan Jackson previously went camping on his honeymoon and caught the swine flu. He can be reached at

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sweet caroline wrote on August 13, 2017 at 10:08 am

Ryan, you've put a smile on my face and joy in my heart with your camping story!  I love the way you write.  It's so easy to follow, and I can truly imagine the whole scenario in my mind.  You are a very patient husband/dad/person.  I bet you keep your wife in stitches with your humor!  Thanks for the chuckle.  I'm set for the rest of the day!