Anna June and I just experienced our first time camping in a tent. I wanted to get this post up as soon as possible, since several in our family knew we left but hadn't heard we got back safely. We're here, and we're fine.
On Friday afternoon, we picked AJ up from school at 3:00, filled up our cooler, and headed to Wind Creek State Park in Alexander City, Alabama to go camping. Unfortunately, since it is Columbus Day weekend and many schools and businesses are closed today (Monday), a lot of people had similar ideas. Highway 280 was packed, and it took a bit longer to get there. It was still the most direct route, so we hung in there, stopping only once for dinner.
We arrived at the campground and reserved our space. I had tried to do this over the telephone but the office assured me that there would be no problem getting a spot on that particular weekend. We chose a spot by the lake, but when we saw it, we didn't love it, so we looked again further back. We found a quieter place back from the lake but still with a bit of a view. The difference in price went to buy firewood for our campfire.
Wind Creek State Park is the largest state-owned campground in the US. It has more than 600 campsites, about 100 of which are currently under construction. The reason they have so many is that the sites are tiny! But they worked for us. It is a very popular place for those who are more into "glamping" than camping -there were tons of RVs and campers. As it was a fall weekend in Alabama, there were satellite dishes set up to receive the football games. Cheers went up throughout the campground during both the Auburn and Alabama games. People greeted each other based on their attire with "War Eagle" or "Roll Tide." The folks across from us were very nice, but they listened to the Bama game at full volume, in case we wanted to hear. We didn't. They brought along their dog, who was named Saban - because of course he was.
We can see why this park is such a draw. Lake Martin is huge and beautiful, so it offers great fishing and boating opportunities. There is running water and electricity at each camp site, so we never had to do without a charged phone or haul water. The bath houses were numerous and clean. (My one requirement was that there were flushing toilets, and there were, so I was happy.)
We got to our site right at sunset. This was a problem. We had wanted to avoid setting up in the dark (and left work early to do it) but it couldn't be helped. We opened the box for the tent and the first thing at the top of the directions said to try setting up the tent at home before you go camping. We hadn't opened the boxes since they arrived in June, for fear of losing something, so we didn't know. If we use this tent again, we'll have a much better idea of how it goes together. Ben and AJ got it standing, and then I helped put the "fly" over it. I had no idea what the name or function of this piece was, but I heard another camper walk by and say, "Oh, I like how that fly is on that tent." It made an awning, which was nice, and covered the breathable mesh of the tent, which was critical. We just took a really long time to figure out which way was the front. We had lanterns and flashlights, but it was still dark. One thing that really saved us was a head lamp - Ben and I used that thing diligently to free up our hands during the construction.
Once we got things in place, Ben built a fire. We got the wood from the ranger station, which was expensive and not very plentiful. There was a fire pit right next to the tent, so the parameters for the fire were all set. There was a grill on the fire pit, too, but we were glad that we brought the table-top grill - who wants to crouch while cooking? Other sites had standing grills but no fire pits, so this was better for us.
Then we got ready for bed. Air mattresses were inflated, sleeping bags were laid out, pajamas were donned. Somehow, while packing for the trip, we checked the forecast and I SWEAR I thought I heard the low was to be 46. I am not a fun person when I am cold, so I packed a bunch of sweatshirts and extra socks. Evidently, I heard wrong, because the low was 64. We sweated the whole time - we left our windows in the tent open for a cross breeze. We slept with the sleeping bags as blankets instead of cocoons.
We had a pretty good night of sleep, with it taking a while to settle down and get used to cars and people going by right beside the tent. In our chosen spot, the tent had to be set up really close to the road. It was fine, but some times we wondered if a car wasn't about to come through the tent! As much physical strength as it took to stake down the tent through our rocky soil, there was no way I was going to move it, though.
I did have to make a midnight run to the bath house. This was actually a very peaceful and solitary time - it was cool and dark, and not too much of a hill or a hike.
At 6:20 AM, we were woken by a fishing tournament beginning. A bullhorn dismissed boats by number. We watched their headlights out the tent window and saw them zooming by. Not something I get to see every day.
We ate breakfast: Ben cooked bacon and we ate some donuts we had brought. We set up the canopy, which is very nice and may be our new best friend. We will be taking it on future trips, especially to the beach.
After washing the dishes and doing a few more housekeeping things, Anna June wanted to go fishing. Ben took her to the camp store and registered for his fishing license (good until the end of August). We went down to the pier, near the marine police station, and fished for a while.
We didn't catch anything, but it was late in the morning, which is not the ideal time. We saw the bleachers and weigh-in station for the tournament, but we missed the grand finale.
We had turkey sandwiches and chips for lunch. I was glad to have something that was easy along. AJ balked and just ate cheese and bread.
At that point, we needed naps. The grownups took one, but AJ just basically sat around bored. The nap saved the rest of the day for us - the stress of the week combined with the physical activity of getting there and setting up, plus being woken up other various times by barking dogs and other people's crying children had worn us out. Eventually, after much persistence on AJ's part, we got back up and discussed the rest of the day.
First, we visited one of the park's three playgrounds. At first, AJ wasn't interested in playing. There were a bunch of kids already engrossed with playing with each other and it was overwhelming to her. (Did I mention she refused to take a nap?) She eventually got the hang of it and played for a little while.
Some holes in our planning had become apparent - there was not enough Diet Dr. Pepper along to keep Ben caffeinated, so we set out in search of the nearest grocery store. We were lucky to find Winn-Dixie close by. They had firewood in larger bundles (and cheaper)! We got some more bottles of water, because AJ decided that the running water on site was not fit to drink, and we got her some Kool-aid pouches, too. We got paper towels as well as more glow-in-the-dark bracelets, which we had used to mark the ropes of the tent. These turned out to be great helps for us and others to keep from knocking the thing over. The trip was warranted, although I had hoped to avoid it. Sometimes we shop on vacation more than anything else.
There were 2 hiking trails I wanted to visit, but I also wanted to climb to the top of the silo overlooking the lake. We headed to the day use side of the park and found it. It was pretty high up - the silo is a great landmark for boaters. We took some pictures and then AJ was ready to go. The temperature had reached my minimum for swimming, 85 degrees. So AJ and I changed into our swimsuits and went and got in the lake. We saw all different kinds of birds, including red headed woodpeckers. We stayed a while, and would have stayed longer, but others were abandoning the area in favor of dinner time and we thought we should do the same.
We went back to the site and Ben made hot dogs and pork & beans. It was fantastic. Then it was time for S'mores. AJ and I roasted our marshmallows on sticks she had found. She decided she didn't like the chocolate that much and handed her official S'more to me. Then she roasted another one to eat with just graham crackers. After that, we were done.
We played games.I will say that I liked the picnic table at our site - it was nice and long. The plastic tablecloth and the clips holding it down were very nice to have. We played Hedbandz, crazy eights, apples to apples (a version from a kids' meal) and rock paper scissors (a card game given in a different kids' meal). AJ enjoyed playing all the games, especially the ones that she won. We put most everything away in a plastic tub, and headed to bed.
Once again, around midnight, I had to go to the bathroom. I learned that it's a terrible idea to use one's phone as a flashlight when the battery is low - the peaceful walk I had relished the night before soon became fairly scary with no light on the way back!
AJ was scared throughout the night, and woke us up at least 3 times. She came and got in "bed" with me around 3:45. At 4:00, I groggily told Ben we had to zip up the windows to keep the rain out, which we did. Then around 4:45, it started with the thunder and lightning. AJ was still asleep, so I drove myself to the bath house - I couldn't make it through the crisis unless I took care of myself! While I was gone, Ben and AJ got their shoes on and ran to the car with me as soon as I was back. We waited for a while, and then came up with the plan that it was almost breakfast time, anyway. There was a Huddle House we had spotted on our earlier trip out of the camp, so we headed there - I assured Ben that they were open 24 hours. We went and had a big, leisurely breakfast while waiting for the storm to pass. Although we had come prepared with instant oatmeal, this turned out to be a lot better! After AJ ate her strawberry French toast, she spent $7 worth of quarters on the claw machine to no avail. It was something to do, though.
We headed back to camp and back to bed while the rain stopped. Around 8:30, we got up and surveyed the damage - toys, chairs, and other things not under the canopy were soaked. Everything under the canopy was wet, too, but not as devastating as it could have been. We spent the next hour or two drying things off and packing things up. If things had not been so wet, we would have gone hiking, but we were ready to leave at that point.
I drove back, and we stopped in Childersberg for lunch. Ben acted as DJ, and we sang songs all the way back home, about an hour and a half. We made the whole trip on less than one tank of gas.
Here are some takeaways from our trip:
1. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to Granny Annie for sending all the camping equipment for our anniversary this year. Although I had been to camp many times, I had never actually camped, which is a big part of their family tradition. I never wanted to invest in all the equipment in case I hated it. We used every single thing she sent to us: the tent, tarp, air mattresses, sleeping bags, dishes, pots and pans, dish tub, axe, rope, tablecloth and clips, canopy, and plastic tubs. By the way, we're pretty sure she put the stuff in the tubs when she came to visit us in July - we didn't remember them. Even if she was that sneaky, we are thankful because they kept our stuff dry and bug-free.
2. We liked Wind Creek enough to go back, but maybe not to camp there. I do, however, see the appeal of going to the same place over and over. There were families there who were on a first name basis with park employees and there was a real sense of community with the RV'ers, who must come there all the time.
3. There are lots of other state parks in Alabama with improved campsites, so we should visit more of them. It's a great natural resource.
4. Camping has gotten more expensive since Ben was a boy, but then again the amenities have improved. It's not really comparing apples to apples.
5. AJ should bring a friend next time. As a grownup, my idea of a fun time is sitting in a chair while watching AJ play. We let her go exploring on her own (as long as she was in the sound of our voices) but it would have been more fun with a friend. She complained of being bored more than once. It wasn't because the toys weren't great - it was because we had so many housekeeping duties to tend to (cooking, set up, pack up, cleaning) which she did not want to help with that we didn't have time to play.
6. Leaving early was not a bad thing. We had to unpack and put away all the gear, which does not sound like much, but we had to lay the tent, canopy, and tarp out in our back yard to dry for a bit before we could put it back in the shed. I was able to make a dent in the laundry (a load of wet towels that had been hung on our clothesline got even wetter in the storm). It was great.
7. We should revise our packing list. We brought some things we didn't need (coats), and didn't bring some we needed (like flip flops). However, we were working within the confines of the Scion XB - we don't have a luggage shell for the top of the car (nor do we want one)! We could be more efficient next time.
8. We will do it again, possibly when it is cooler. It was so hot. I can't imagine going during the summer. Maybe spring break.
9. When we camp again, weather permitting, we'll stay an extra day. It's just barely worth it to pitch a tent for 2 nights, but it was just right for our first trip.
10. "Roughing it" for us usually means no WiFi. We are so very lucky and blessed to have such daily luxuries as running water and indoor plumbing, central heat and air, cars to take us from place to place and sturdy homes to keep the elements out. So many in the world do not have these things. Camping gets us "back to nature," sure - it was great to see a body of water, the fish, the birds, and the trees. But it was another gentle reminder that we are so very fortunate to be able to go to the woods with temporary housing just for fun.
I guess it is time to go to work and get back to the real world, so we can keep our house and cars, etc. We did have a fun time and hope to go again, as soon as we forget how much work it is.
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